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Published: Wednesday, 12/25/2013

Poison gas kills 8 after storm fells power lines

BY RICHARD A. OPPEL JR.
NEW YORK TIMES

With downed power lines forcing hundreds of thousands of North Americans to spend Christmas without electricity today, officials said that one of the deadliest results of ice storms that raged through the Northeast and Midwest came from gasoline-powered private generators that give off carbon monoxide, killing at least three Americans and five Canadians.

In Maine and Vermont, where state authorities described the ice storm as the worst since 1998, there were no deaths from falling tree limbs or fallen power lines. But each state reported one death from carbon monoxide from a generator run after power was lost. The authorities reported a similar fatality in Michigan, and at least five people in eastern Canada were reported to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Many others in those places who used generators or grills to heat homes also fell ill from the toxic, but odorless, gas.

“It’s a real problem, a silent killer,” said Joe Flynn, Vermont’s director of emergency management and homeland security. The fatality in Vermont occurred Monday after a man set up a generator outside his home but near a drafty window, drawing the gas inside, Flynn said. Four other Vermont residents who lost power also fell ill from what was believed to be carbon monoxide.

In Knox, Maine, a 50-year-old man woke up early Tuesday morning, went to his garage to refuel a generator that had kept his family warm that night, and collapsed and died.

“He was overcome within minutes from the fumes that had built up overnight,” said Steve McCausland, the spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. He and other officials urged people using generators to leave them outside their homes and garages and well away from windows.

Twenty-four deaths in the United States and Canada have been linked to the storms since the weekend, according to The Associated Press. Five people were killed in Canada in car crashes, while five died in Kentucky on Sunday after they were trapped by floodwaters, according to officials there.

The weather has complicated repairs to power lines: Freezing temperatures have persisted across much of the northern United States, and the National Weather Service said more snow would be dumped on Michigan and Maine on Thursday. Yet despite cold that kept a thick layer of ice on transmission lines, power companies reported progress in restoring electricity.

In Michigan, 18,000 customers of DTE Energy, a utility company, were still without power as of 4 p.m. today, down from 49,000 on Christmas Eve. Another large Michigan utility, Consumers Energy, said 118,000 customers remained without power, down from 149,000 a day earlier. The region around Flint was hit especially hard.

At the worst point, 23,000 customers in Vermont were without power, but by Christmas afternoon that was cut to about 1,600, Flynn said.

The Central Maine Power Co. said 45,000 customers did not have electricity this afternoon, but officials were working to lower that number to 30,000 by day’s end. At the worst point, 87,000 were without power. The utility, which has 850 employees, rushed in so many crews from outside the state that by Christmas Day, 1,800 people were working to fix damage, said John Carroll, a company spokesman.

Some towns in Maine lost nearly all their power, including Pittston, where Tim Marks, who serves in the state House of Representatives, said that when he looked out his window on Christmas morning, an inch of ice still coated everything he saw. Neighbors take care of one another, looking in on people and swapping generators. But Marks, a deer hunter, worried how wildlife could survive a long period of coated ice on the ends of low-hanging trees and shrubs.

“I don’t know how they can eat anything,” he said. “They can’t paw the ground, and the buds are covered with ice.”



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