Pennsylvanians shiver for 5 freezing days without power

A utility worker tries to restore power in Downingtown, Pa. As of Sunday, at least 50,000 Pennsylvania power customers remained without electricity after a Wednesday morning storm.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Stacie Testerman lives in York County, about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, and gets her water from a well.

So when her power suddenly went out at 3 a.m. Wednesday -- as it did for several hundred thousand Pennsylvanians last week -- her faucets and toilets stopped working too.

But rather than abandon her home, Testerman thought she’d tough it out by burning wood in the stove and melting snow to make water for flushing the toilet.

Five days later, Testerman and tens of thousands of other Pennsylvanians are still waiting for relief.


“We have chickens, cats & a hotel costs money,” Testerman told the Los Angeles Times in an interview over Twitter, after the storm also knocked out her land-line telephone service. “We thought maybe a day without power. This is excessive.”

Pennsylvania power provider PECO reported Sunday evening that 42,000 customers were still without power five days after an ice storm brought down tree limbs onto power lines, houses and cars.

The company, which has marshaled 6,100 emergency workers from its own staff and from utilities around the country, said the storm was its second-worst-ever outage disaster, eclipsed only by the effects of Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012.

More than leaving residents shivering beneath blankets and awaiting the return of power, the storm has had highly dangerous aftereffects for homebodies and travelers.

Early Sunday afternoon, a Trident passenger bus “traveling at a speed that was greater than is reasonable” crashed into an embankment on a snowy rural highway in Bedford County in southern Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.

Twenty-six passengers, plus the driver, were taken to hospitals in Bedford County and western Maryland for treatment, according to state police, who blamed the driver. The extent of their injuries was not immediately clear.

Over the course of five days without power, some people have gone to dangerous lengths to keep warm. In Chester County, just west of Philadelphia, 30 people have been hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning, according to one emergency official.

“Unfortunately, there are some people that are being desperate and doing dangerous things like having a charcoal or gas grill in their homes, using their generators inside,” Robert Kagel, the deputy director for the county’s emergency management, told The Times. “One guy took a Duraflame log and lit it on fire on his kitchen table.”


So what happened to him?

“The gentleman who lit the Duraflame log was not hurt and, fortunately for him, he did not burn his house down,” said Patty Mains, spokeswoman for Chester County emergency services.

In Lionville -- also in Chester County -- Kelly Whalen said her power was on when she woke up Wednesday morning. But before she could get out of bed and make coffee, it went out.

“We could hear, constantly, cracking of tree branches falling all around us and the tinkling of icicles in the trees -- which sounds very lovely, but it’s not,” Whalen, 37, told The Times in a phone interview.


Whalen’s family decided to try staying home that night. She tucked her four children -- ages 16, 12, 9, and 8 -- into bed with all the blankets she could find, and they donned double layers of clothing. Then she and her husband slept by the fireplace to keep it burning all night.

“It got down to 45 degrees in the house by time we woke up Thursday morning,” Whalen said. “That’s too much.”

The family then decided to drive two hours south to stay with relatives in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where there was “no ice, no snow, no power outages, nothing wrong.” Worried about missing school and work, but unsure of when PECO would have the power back on, the Whalens returned home Sunday and found that the lights were working again.

“Now we’re home and everything’s warming up, and we’re just happy to be home,” Whalen said Sunday evening.


At one point, more than 600,000 PECO customers were without power. Even now, officials worry that power might not be fully restored until the end of this week.

The number of customers without power is coming down at “a good pace, but we’d like it better,” Fred Maher, a PECO spokesman, told The Times. “We’ve had some restoration times where it’s, ‘OK, we’ll think we’ll get everybody online tonight at 11,’ and then workers find out there’s more work to be done.”

Outages can be fickle. From his powerless Spring City home in Chester County, Eric Sahns, 40, could see homes in his neighborhood that had electricity, heat, Internet, phone service.

He told The Times that there was no moment when he realized he would go five days without power. “We kept on hoping it would go on in an hour,” Sahns said.


At night, he put on pajamas, sweatpants, a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks and three more shirts before hopping beneath five or six blankets to huddle with his German shepard, Schatzi, for warmth.

Inside the house, “It got down in the 50s the first night,” Sahns said. “The second night, it got in the lower 40s in the house, and then last night, it was in the upper 30s.... It actually got cold enough that the smoke detector went off” because of an apparent defect. “I can laugh about it now, but it scared the hell out of me.”

He moved the food in his fridge to his back porch to keep it chilled. Then his milk froze. He charged his cellphone in his car and at a neighbor’s house. But the storm wasn’t all bad: Sahns said there was a “huge outpour[ing] of support” from family and friends, who offered to invite him over and give him food as the crisis worsened.

It also gave Sahns a chance to think about the nearby Amish community, who belong to a faith that largely shuns electicity, even in harsh winters.


“They’re used to it, but they have fireplaces, and they’re set up differently to live that way,” Sahns said. “But in the modern world, your Average Joe, everything from making coffee to getting information, the heat, is all electric. It throws you back. We’re really not prepared for it.”