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All thousands want for Christmas is electricity

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 10:21 a.m.
Andrew Powers, an arborist with Asplundh Tree Experts, clears iced branches from power lines along Mayflower Heights Drive in Waterville, Maine, on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Central Maine Power said nearly 57,000 were without power Monday afternoon, up from 29,000 it had been reporting earlier.
Andrew Powers, an arborist with Asplundh Tree Experts, clears iced branches from power lines along Mayflower Heights Drive in Waterville, Maine, on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Central Maine Power said nearly 57,000 were without power Monday afternoon, up from 29,000 it had been reporting earlier.
Trees frozen in ice cripple a section of power lines on Maplehurst Drive  in Belgrade, Maine, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. From Michigan to Maine, hundreds of thousands remain without power days after a massive ice storm _ which one utility called the largest Christmas-week storm in its history _ blacked out homes and businesses in the Great Lakes and Northeast.
Trees frozen in ice cripple a section of power lines on Maplehurst Drive in Belgrade, Maine, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. From Michigan to Maine, hundreds of thousands remain without power days after a massive ice storm _ which one utility called the largest Christmas-week storm in its history _ blacked out homes and businesses in the Great Lakes and Northeast.
Jake Baldino, left, and Mick Benbow of K & T Electric of DeWitt replace an electrical box and pole to a home in DeWitt Township, Mich., Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Jake Baldino, left, and Mick Benbow of K & T Electric of DeWitt replace an electrical box and pole to a home in DeWitt Township, Mich., Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Utility crews respond to a downed power line at the intersection of Dorset Street and Kennedy Drive in South Burlington, Vt., on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.
Utility crews respond to a downed power line at the intersection of Dorset Street and Kennedy Drive in South Burlington, Vt., on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013.

DETROIT — Ted and Angela Montgomery had planned to entertain family and friends this Christmas at their home in Lapeer, north of Detroit. But an ice storm knocked out their lights and heat on Sunday — and it hadn't been restored by Christmas Eve.

“We've just been using our fireplace, using the one in the great room and that's been keeping it pretty decent,” said 61-year-old Ted Montgomery, who was headed for a shelter in a hotel on Tuesday. “We planned a little family gathering we had to cancel.”

Montgomery was among a half-million utility customers — from Maine to Michigan and into Canada — who lost power in an ice storm last weekend that one utility called the worst during Christmas week in its history. Repair crews were working around the clock to restore service, and they reported good progress Wednesday morning despite more snow rolling into the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest overnight.

So, like Jennings, thousands of people prepared for a holiday at home without electricity or packed up their wrapped gifts and stayed with family or friends.

At his home in central Maine, Doug Jennings had only a propane stove to heat his home — with visitors in town.

“It's going to be problematic. We're going to have to do something about it, go to a hotel or whatever,” said Jennings, who lives near Augusta. “But we have Christmas food that's probably going to be all bad. My wife says ‘I don't feel like doing the kids' stockings or anything.'” The storm also created dangerous driving conditions. Police in Michigan attributed two deaths in a traffic collision Monday to the storm, and a series of crashes involving as many as 40 vehicles during snow squalls on Tuesday shut down the eastbound lanes of Interstate 90 east of Cleveland for hours.

Authorities said the storm contributed to the deaths of 14 people across the region, including a 50-year-old man who was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator in Knox, Maine.

The number of customers in Maine without power spiked to more than 100,000 on Tuesday, though the number had dropped to 70,000 by Wednesday morning. Central Maine Power said its goal was to use more than 1,000 workers to restore power for all customers by Thursday night, while other utilities in Maine warned customers they could be without electricity until Friday.

Complicating their efforts, however, are expected wind gusts of about 20 mph in some places, which could bring down more tree limbs.

Across the border in Canada, Toronto officials said 90,000 customers were without power Tuesday — down from 300,000 at the height of the outages.

In Michigan, Jackson-based Consumers Energy — the state's largest utility — said it hadn't had this many outages during any Christmas week in its 126-year history. Close to 17 percent of its 1.8 million electric customers lost power during the storm that hit late Saturday; roughly 129,000 remained without it Wednesday morning.

Ken Fuller runs a generator repair shop in Lansing, Mich., where more than 13,000 people were without power a day earlier. He typically closes by noon on Christmas Eve, but at 12:30 p.m. he was cleaning out a broken generator's carburetor — and had five more waiting to be serviced.

“The temperature outside is 15 to 20 degrees,” Fuller said. “Christmas is going to have to take second fiddle right now because houses are getting cold, freezing water pipes.”

That was the concern that John Potbury and his family faced outside Flint. They lost electricity at 6 a.m. Sunday and have been living in a single bedroom warmed by generator-powered space heaters. The lights on their tree, of course were dark.

“Even though the house is freezing cold, the freezer items were starting to thaw out,” Potbury said.

But Potbury's kids, 8-year-old Jacob and 5-year-old Jackson, kept things in perspective, telling their dad Tuesday that “Santa runs on reindeer power, not electricity, so he should be OK.”

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