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Lack of power, water grueling for farmer

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Feb. 12, 2010

Dan McLaughlin was on his own Saturday, with 60 horses to feed, 60 stalls to clean and no electricity to light his barns or pump water from his well.

No one could get to McLaughlin's Beaver County farm to help or truck in a portable generator because roads were blocked by 2 feet of snow and downed trees and wires. His wife, Christine, couldn't help because she recently broke her right foot.

"That day was hell," said McLaughlin, 42.

The McLaughlins run Blue Ribbon Farms in Independence, a 138-acre farmstead and equestrian facility on Cowpath Road. They were among more than 300,000 customers in Southwestern Pennsylvania to lose power during the peak of last weekend's snowstorm -- and will be among the last to have it restored.

"It's been tough for people," said Beaver County Emergency Services Director Wes Hill. "But the remaining outages were so much in the outlying areas. Duquesne Light had a lot of difficulty getting to them."

About 21,000 customers remained without power Thursday night. Of those, fewer than 400, including the McLaughlins, were Duquesne Light customers concentrated in western Allegheny County and southeastern Beaver County.

Duquesne Light spokesman Joseph Vallarian said the company hoped to restore power to everyone by midnight tonight. Allegheny Power said its restoration efforts would continue through Sunday.

"I make my living off the farm, so this has really been hard on us," McLaughlin said. He said Blue Ribbon typically brings in at least $1,500 a week through riding lessons, offering as many as 12 lessons five or six nights a week, but they have been canceled since the storm began because there's no lighting in the farm's indoor arena.

Still, the lack of water service has been the biggest problem. The animals can dehydrate more easily in winter because they burn an enormous amount of energy trying to keep warm.

McLaughlin, a first-term supervisor in the township of 2,800 people, said he couldn't lead the horses to water and make them drink Saturday.

So, 60 times in all, he trudged more than 100 yards through knee-deep snow with a 5-gallon bucket in each hand to get water from the nearest creek. Each horse goes through two buckets a day, and throughout the day, McLaughlin had to make sure the water didn't freeze because there wasn't power for electric heating coils in the barn that normally do the trick.

It usually takes an hour to water the horses. Saturday, it took eight.

McLaughlin was able to get a small portable generator trucked in Sunday to run the well pump.

That, and help from employees who could finally make it to Blue Ribbon, made life easier. But there are only about 10 hours of daylight to water the horses, feed them and clean their stalls. Snow blanketing barn skylights robs precious natural light.

"We have to work fast," he said.

McLaughlin said he was reluctant to truck in a large generator to power his barns and home because "every time I'd talk to (Duquesne Light), they'd say my service was coming back on by 9 that night."

Christine McLaughlin has spent the week with family nearby while her husband has tended to the farm. He spent the first couple nights sleeping near a fireplace in their home, where the temperature has dropped to 37 degrees, but has since spent the nights with his wife and seen her during lunch breaks.

"It's been hard," McLaughlin said. "But I can't just leave the horses."

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