December Ice Storm

Overnight on Dec. 11, 2008 the Monadnock Regionwas blasted with an ice storm that devastated several communities. The Sentinel’s coverage of the aftermath lasted for more than two weeks, as thousands of families dealt with prolonged power outages and worked to clean up felled trees and other debris. Below are a handful of the articles I wrote about the storm.

In effort to recover in Stoddard, it takes a community
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 16
STODDARD — It was early afternoon and lunch had just wrapped up, but for the volunteers at Stoddard’s emergency shelter in Faulkner Elementary School Monday it was already time to start working on dinner.

Twelve-year-old Megan E. Holland poured boxes of wide, flat lasagna noodles into a huge pot of boiling water as other volunteers busily prepared pans of tomato sauce and browned meat in the school’s small kitchen.

Megan Holland has been volunteering with her parents, volunteer firefighter Donnie Holland and volunteer EMT Kellie Holland, at the town’s emergency shelter for the last four days.

Without power, heat and running water, hundreds of people across the region have flocked to emergency shelters — manned by local volunteers like the Hollands — for hot coffee, warm meals and a place to sleep.

While most of the ice that splintered huge trees and wiped out power lines melted away in warm temperatures Monday, Stoddard Fire Chief Patricia “PJ” Lamothe said 99 percent of homes in Stoddard were still without power. At least one family planned to stay in the shelter Monday night, Lamothe said.

Kellie Holland, who has been working in the shelter since it opened Friday, said members of the community have come together to help out one another.

“The community is unbelievable,” Kellie Holland said. “We’ve had people offering to bring food, to bake things, offering showers for people that need them.”

Megan and Kellie Holland and at least 10 other volunteers have spent the last few days making meals while Donnie Holland, Wayne Hall and several other firefighters have been bringing fuel to people using generators at their homes and checking to make sure they’re being used safely.

Outside the school Monday afternoon, gas cans of all shapes and sizes sat next to a row of salt-encrusted emergency vehicles. Inside what has become a makeshift command base for emergency workers, the smell of dinner cooking wafted through the Lucy B. Hill community room attached to the school, which served as a staging area for firefighters cleaning equipment.

Over the weekend, more than two dozen National Guardsmen and six sawyers, or wood cutters, from the N.H. Division of Forest and Land slept in cots and sleeping bags in the shelter. They spent their days cutting down broken trees and clearing limbs from the roads and all were gone by Monday, Lamothe said.

Donnie Holland said even though most of the tree-cutting has been done along major roads, the work of cleaning up debris left from the storm won’t be easy.

“It’s still a mess out there,” he said.

Don Robinson, who lives in what town residents call “the development” alongside Hidden Lake — an area of town Lamothe said had been hardest hit by the storm — said neighbors had been pitching in since Friday helping to clear downed trees on one another’s properties and in the roads.

“There was a bunch of guys that got together Friday morning,” Robinson said. “Some people had chainsaws and hand saws. I had both and we just cleaned up as much as we could.”

Robinson said while trees have been cleared from the roads, those touching power lines haven’t been moved.

“We’re being told to let the utility crews do that,” Robinson said. “It’s a little scary out there still.”

Donnie Holland said tensions are beginning to run high.

“People are getting a little cranky out there,” Donnie Holland said.

For the Hollands, this isn’t the first disaster they’ve pitched in on. During severe flooding in 2005, they also offered a hand to their neighbors and worked at an emergency shelter.

Kellie Holland said by Monday afternoon the power at her family’s home on Old Antrim Road still hadn’t been restored and they hadn’t yet cleaned up all the broken tree limbs on their own property.

“There’s not much we can do until the power is back on,” she said.

Lamothe said town officials haven’t received any indication when power might be turned on in the town, but emergency crews are trying to prepare for a snow storm predicted to hit as early as this evening.

“We’ll be assessing things as the days go on and deciding whether to keep the shelter open, whether it’s being used,” Lamothe said. “But the concern is that if it gets cold and people still don’t have power it could get worse again.”

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

Generators becoming the hot holiday item in Keene
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 17
With 10,450 Monadnock Region homes still in the dark Tuesday afternoon, generators remained a hot-ticket item at Keene stores.

Throughout the day, a steady stream of customers came into Home Depot, which had received a shipment of 320 generators Monday night, according to Susan Harr, supervisor of the service desk.

In a few hours Tuesday, the store sold more than $100,000 worth of generators and had less than 200 generators left, Harr said.

A large cardboard sign in the front window advertised “We have generators”; inside, employees busily hauled boxes onto flat-bed carts for customers to load into cars and trucks.

But the store was limiting the number of generators people could buy to one, to try to keep them from buying several and reselling them.

“One lady came in and said she saw people selling them by the side of the road,” Harr said.

The store has had a run on power cords, gas cans and other generator-related supplies since the ice storm that hit the region Thursday night, Harr said.

Michael Walsh of Troy bought a generator at Home Depot Monday afternoon.

Walsh said he had a generator at home, but it only worked about 15 minutes before dying.

“Since (Friday) morning we haven’t had power,” Walsh said. “We have a wood furnace and we have propane for the stove, so we’re doing okay. But we’re getting sick of using candles.”

Walsh said even with the generator, he and his wife won’t be able to get running water to their house, but they plan to drain their Jacuzzi, which is freezing over, and use the water.

While most of the rest of the houses on Tolman Road, where Walsh lives, have power, he said his driveway is about a quarter-mile long and he doesn’t expect power to be restored for days.

Walsh said he was surprised to find generators at Home Depot after the store had a run on them over the weekend — with long lines finally resulting in a waiting list.

Harr said with its new shipment, the store had stopped using waiting lists and was operating on a cash-and-carry basis.

“People can call and see if we still have them,” she said. “But we’re not holding them for people that call in.”

Other stores in the area also received shipments of generators, including Sears, which had about 40 near the front doors and the Achille Agway in Peterborough, which received about 10.

The Achille Agway in Keene had not received any.

A clerk who answered the phone at Fireside True Value in Brattleboro Tuesday morning said the store also received about 10 generators Monday night, and had already sold several.

People are also turning to cyberspace. A search for “generators” on the New Hampshire Craig’s List Web site, an online classified page, Wednesday morning showed 39 items, with generators ranging in price from $300 to $2,500.

Thiry-one of the postings, which included requests for generators and one admonishing sellers who were charging more than what they paid for the generators, were posted since the Dec. 11 ice storm.

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

In Rindge, folks ‘starting to get cranky’
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Thursday, Dec. 18
RINDGE — As Karie Bruno of Little Michigan Road in Jaffrey shopped at Wal-Mart in Rindge Wednesday, she hoped that, at the same time, utility workers were restoring power to her house.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” she said, pushing a cart-full of Christmas presents out of the store, her teenage daughters in tow. “We don’t have heat and the kids are staying with their dad for now because of the power.”

For Bruno, like thousands of others in the Monadnock Region, the past week since an ice storm battered the area has been a test of her patience and grit.

“I stay with my mom and we’re good company for each other,” she said. “But with everyone cooped up in one room of the house, patience is wearing thin.”

And without working telephone lines or Internet connections, some area residents without power are beginning to voice their frustrations to town officials.

“The problem is, no one really knows what’s going on,” Bruno said.

Bruno said she’d heard that schools in the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District will be closed until Jan. 5, but having heard it only from neighbors, thought it was a rumor.

It was not. School district officials made the announcement Tuesday.

Town officials across the region say with modern technology like phones and Internet failing them as they try to reach out to town residents, they have resorted to going door-to-door to contact people or posting signs at heavily trafficked intersections and shelters.

Rindge Fire Chief Rickard Donovan, who is the town’s emergency management director, said immediately after the storm that town officials’ priorities had been assessing the storm’s damage, establishing emergency shelter for residents and determining that everyone was safe.

But on Wednesday morning, seven National Guard members began fanning out to homes using the town’s 911 maps — starting with the most heavily damaged areas where Donovan said some people may not have even been able to get out of their driveways yet.

“There are people we still may not have gotten to yet,” Donovan said. “But that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten you. We’re coming.”

Donovan also said he’d heard of neighbors checking on one another and encouraged people to watch out for others if they can.

Donovan said 52 workers from Public Service of New Hampshire were working on power lines around town Wednesday afternoon, but only about 35 percent of Rindge homes had power.

Rindge Police Chief Michael J. Sielicki said signs have been posted along Route 119 at the intersections of Wellington Road, Cathedral Road and Route 202. Information is also posted at the Wal-Mart entrance and the town shelter at the recreation center.

Town Administrator Carlotta Lilback Pini said for those with telephone service, an answering machine recording at the town office, at 899-5181, will also provide the most updated information on shelters, showers, school closings and town business.

This morning, the recording said that as of Wednesday afternoon residents should expect seven to 10 days until power is fully restored to the town.

Pini said town offices and the transfer station will remain closed indefinitely because of storm damage.

“I think the people who have power back don’t understand why we’re not back to business as usual,” Pini said. “But things aren’t back to normal. There are still live wires down, so sending kids to school could be dangerous. The town offices still don’t have Internet access, so we can’t do vehicle registrations and other services.”

Selectman Jed Brummer said he understands that people are getting frustrated, and he hopes that more communication will help calm concerns and slow the rumors flying around town.

“They haven’t been able to communicate with us and we haven’t been able to communicate with them,” he said. “It doesn’t make anyone very happy.”

Debbie Ladue, a clerk at the Rindge Wal-Mart, said frustrated people without power have been coming into the store for the past few days.

“People are handling things pretty well, considering” said Ladue, who lives in Ashby, Mass., and is also without power. “But they’re starting to get cranky.

“It’s hard when you go to work all day and then come home to a cold house and cook on a little Coleman stove. There’s still work to do like clearing broken trees and you’re just dirty, cold and tired.”

u For updated information from the town’s emergency operations center call 899-3324. This number, however, cannot provide information on power, cable and telephone outages.

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

For some, the gift of power; for others, making spirits bright more challenging

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 24
Rather than a jolly man dressed in red and pulled by a team of reindeer, Christmas for William Mullen this year came with the rumble of more than 50 utility workers rolling into his Nelson neighborhood in about 20 line trucks.

After 10 days without power, Mullen, a snow plow driver, came home Sunday night to find power restored to his house.

“When the power came back on … that was as much Christmas as I’d need,” Mullen said.

A press release from Public Service of New Hampshire Tuesday afternoon reported that “99.9 percent of its customers (would) have power by midnight Wednesday, December 24.”

But some of the 2,000 customers in the state still without power as of Tuesday afternoon were preparing for the worst case scenario, to celebrate the holidays the old-fashioned way — by candlelight — or at friends’ or families’ houses.

Suze Campbell of Jaffrey said she and her husband, Kenneth, were still without power, but are planning to stay home for the holidays.

Their Christmas decorations were up before the storm knocked out power on Dec. 11, but since the house is running on generator power, Campbell said they haven’t been turned on.

Several families in the area also without power have been getting together for holiday parties and the community has pulled together, Campbell said.

And while the power is back on at his house, William Mullen said the holidays will be a low-key affair this year, spent with his wife and sons before they take an annual trip to visit family in Pennsylvania after Christmas.

While the power was out, Mullen said, his wife and sons stayed with friends in Keene, while he worked long hours plowing the roads, leaving little time to spend together. And, Mullen said, the prolonged power outage cost the family money they hadn’t budgeted for.

But despite the rising tensions among many weary residents in the area as they waited for the lights to come back, Mullen said he’s seen pockets of Christmas spirit in surprising places during the weeks after the storm.

“Late Saturday afternoon I went to visit Keene and checked out Craigslist and found a guy willing to lend out his generator,” Mullen said.

By the time he got home that evening, Mullen said, the man had set up the generator in his driveway and had it running.

“That meant a lot to me,” he said. “He asked nothing in return of me and when the power came back, he picked it up and brought it to Rindge for someone else that needed it.”

And to pass out a little of his own holiday spirit, Mullen said when about 20 line trucks rolled into his neighborhood and began fixing telephone poles and wires, he brought Christmas cookies out to them.

“When they got here they were got right down to doing their business,” he said. “I know that people have been upset about it, but these guys were just amazing and they deserved some thanks too.”

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

Finally, affirmation

Federal report confirms 697,000 suffer from Gulf War illness. Swanzey woman sees a faint light at the end of the tunnel

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 17
SWANZEY — There are mornings when 48-year-old Linda L. Hunt of Swanzey can’t get out of bed without her husband’s help because of the pain and stiffness in her joints.

Some days, it takes hours for her painkillers and muscle relaxers to kick in.

Hunt, a retired Air Force veteran who was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990, is one of an estimated 697,000 U.S. veterans who suffer from Gulf War illness, according to a recent report from a committee established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For Hunt, the report released last month validated years spent in search of a diagnosis for the laundry list of symptoms she endures, including joint pain and stiffness, muscle aches and memory and concentration problems.

“I was happy to see it in black and white,” Hunt said. “It felt like validation.”

According to the report, at least one-quarter of Gulf War veterans suffer from the illness, which has been linked to pyridostigmine bromide pills given to protect troops from nerve agents and pesticides used during their deployment.

There are also ties to exposure to nerve agents, receipt of multiple vaccines and close proximity to oil well fires, but evidence to these links are inconsistent, according to the report.

Hunt, who said she was diagnosed with Gulf War illness by a doctor at the Manchester VA Medical Center in 2002, spent five years undergoing a battery of tests before the illness was confirmed.

“They tested me for rheumatoid arthritis, that came back negative,” she said. “I’ve had X-rays, bone scans and blood tests. It was a long, frustrating process and I started to feel like I was going crazy.”

A controversial diagnosis

The recent report from the congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses contradicts a federally-funded study just two years ago that denied the existence of any Gulf War-linked disease.

The 2006 study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, which was sponsored by the Veterans Administration, showed that while the incidence of illness among Gulf War veterans was higher than those from other wars, they couldn’t be linked to a single disease.

Before making an official response to the most recent study confirming the existence of Gulf War illness, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake has sent it to the Institute of Medicine for review, according to a press release from the government agency.

“I appreciate the committee’s work on this report, and I am eager to see the results of further independent study into their findings,” Peake said in the press release. “Of course, VA will continue to provide the care and benefits our Gulf War veterans have earned through their service, as we have for more than a decade.”

Part of the difficulty in pinpointing an illness has been that veterans report a wide and varying range of symptoms, including muscle and joint pain, memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, hair loss and skin rashes.

Gulf War veterans also face an increased risk for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a degenerative disease of the nervous system better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and have died from brain cancer at elevated rates, according to the most recent report.

The report found that federal Gulf War research programs have not been effective in addressing issues related to Gulf War illness and called for research funding to be increased.

“Adequate funding is required to achieve the critical objectives of improving the health of Gulf War veterans and preventing similar problems in future deployments,” the report summarized. “This is a national obligation, made especially urgent by the many years that Gulf War veterans have waited for answers and assistance.”

Hoping for a cure

Besides feeling validated by the committee’s report, Hunt says it has provided her with hope that she could some day feel better.

For now, Hunt said her symptoms are being managed by pain medications, muscle relaxers and antidepressants. She’s tried several homeopathic remedies, including acupuncture and detoxification, but has found them ineffective or too costly.

Besides living in near constant pain, Hunt said her life has been affected both professionally and personally in a myriad of ways.

In 1995, after 15 years in the Air Force, Hunt retired and moved to Alaska, where she worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office until, in 1997, she was suddenly struck with mysterious pain.

“I had a walking route,” she said of her job. “Pretty soon it got to be too much for me.”

In 2002, she moved to New Hampshire and now works in real estate at Century 21 in Keene.

The job provides her flexible hours and allows her to make trips at least four times a year to the veteran’s hospital in Manchester.

“I couldn’t keep a 9 to 5 job,” Hunt said. “If I had to be at work by 9, I’d have to get up at 5 a.m. just so that I could take my meds and get my body to calm down in time to start work.”

An avid bowler and gardener before she became sick, Hunt says she has cut back on physical activities and feels angry that, for years, she felt the government was ignoring the problems she and many of her fellow veterans have faced.

“We served our country,” she said. “What was frustrating is that some of the vaccines we were given weren’t recorded in our individual shot records. So we don’t even have completely accurate records of what they gave us.”

Hunt, whose son is stationed with the Army in Italy and returned earlier this year from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan, says she also worries about whether active military members are still being exposed to toxins that may have made her ill.

“There still needs to be a lot more research,” she said. “And I think it should be a made a priority.”

From Vietnam to Keene, he’s healed the sick

Note: Dr. Stern lost his battle to cancer July 29, 2010. A guest book accompanying his obituary notice in the Boston Globe contained dozens of messages from former patients mourning his loss.
Published Dec. 13, 2008 in the Keene Sentinel
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
As a combat medic near the front lines during the Vietnam War, Dr. Barry L. Stern got some of his earliest medical training treating thousands of young soldiers fighting for their lives with wounds from explosions, gunfire and burns. 

But he vividly remembers the day a local pregnant woman came to the mobile Army surgical hospital he was running. She had gone into labor and for Stern and the other doctors who had seen so much pain, birth was a welcome change.

“We delivered a little baby girl,” Stern said. “It was such a pleasure to have life instead of death. Everybody squeezed into the operating room to watch it happen because this was the only up time we had.”

For Stern, a Keene doctor who has spent the last 27 years treating local families at Cheshire Medical Associates, his war experiences reinforced the idea that he would one day go to medical school and become a family physician.

“The surgeons would come in, do the case and leave,” Stern said, sitting in his small, cluttered but cozy office on Emerald Street. “It reminded me of a mechanic — and I don’t mean this as a crass characterization of all surgeons — but in those days there was very little patient contact.”

“The kids came in, they were blown to hell. We’d operate on them, make them whole again and we’d never see them again because their rehab was done someplace else.”

But the story of Stern’s medical career — and his marriage to his wife, Sandra — began in a Boston hospital even before he enlisted in the Army.

Back in the day

Stern and his wife were born six months apart, the children of two military veterans who had become best friends during World War II. While Stern lived in Brookline, Mass., and his future wife lived on the North Shore, the two families often visited each other.

In the early 1960s, when Stern was a student at Boston University, he worked as a pathology assistant, helping perform autopsies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where Sandra was a nursing student.

“When we got married, she was a senior in the nursing school and we had to get special permission because student nurses weren’t allowed to get married,” Stern said. “The only school vacation she had was Easter weekend so we got married March 26, 1967. Then she went back to school and I went back to the Army.”

While he was stationed as a combat medic in South Korea, Sandra worked as a civilian nurse at a hospital in Seoul.

When they returned to the U.S. after Stern’s three-year enlistment expired, the young couple went to Amherst, Mass., where Stern earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.

Planning to go to medical school, his hopes were nearly dashed when he found out that medical schools had a cut-off age of 24 at the time. He was 26 and had one of his three children by then.

“The only other place I could go was to Europe or Mexico,” Stern said. “And having a child, it was easier to drive to Mexico than it was to swim to Europe because I couldn’t afford the airfare.”

So he packed up his young family and went to the Universidad Autonomous de Guadalajara Medical School, which was filled with other Vietnam war veterans too old to attend American medical schools.

“The curriculum is the same, the timeframe is the same, the difference is you have to do a year of servitude to the Mexican government,” Stern said. “You do one year where you don’t get paid.”

Through a special program for American students, Stern did his year of unpaid internship in the U.S., and began shifting his focus to family medicine.

Family time

“When I discovered in medical school that there was a thing called family practice, which was the whole family — taking care of the parents, the grandparents, the kids — that’s what I liked …” Stern said. “It’s easy treat the whole family because you know the ins and the outs, and I do take care of three and four family generations.”

Stern says his focus has always been on preventative medicine and he urges his patients to get yearly exams and stay on top of their own medical issues.

Throughout his career he’s served on scores of boards for social service and medical agencies throughout the region and from 1981 to 2005 he was the Cheshire County Medical Examiner.

One of the most important parts of his job is the bond he develops with families he treats, says Stern, who was recognized as the state’s Family Physician of the Year by his peers in the N.H. Academy of Family Physicians last month.

All of his patients can contact him on his cell phone, which he carries all the time and leaves on his nightstand when he sleeps. They can call him any time, he says.

Jerrold D. Schucart is a close friend of Stern, whom he met 25 years ago as a patient. Schucart said Stern’s dedication to his patients goes above and beyond his job description.

“One time when I was very ill … he came to my house, bag in hand ready to treat me,” Schucart said. “Doctors don’t make house calls any more. But Dr. Barry Stern has no boundaries in relation to his service to the medical profession and his patients.”

Stern said his relationship to his patients goes beyond the examination room.

“I go to funerals of patients and I’ve gone to weddings of their kids,” Stern said “There are as many good times as there are bad times.”

In the bad times, Stern suffers along with his patients and their families. Sometimes, he says, patients look for someone or something to blame when they get a difficult diagnosis.

“If they want to blame me, I don’t take it personal,” Stern said “I know where they’re coming from, I know where their anger is coming from. That’s okay. We’ll deal with it together.”

Attitude of gratitude

For Stern it was when he learned, four years ago, that he has an aggressive form of prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, that he truly understood what his patients face.

“I’m much more empathetic and understanding of my patients,” Stern said. “I understand the fatigue of radiation. I’ve done several years of chemo. I’m on chemo right now.”

But despite the medical hurdles he’s had to mount in recent years, Stern continues to stay active in his practice and with daily swims at the YMCA. He is, he says, his own best proof of the importance of preventative medicine.

“I did yearly blood tests on myself,” Stern said. “If I hadn’t I’d probably be underground.”

By focusing on the good things rather than the bad, he’s seen makes it all worthwhile.

“You take as much joy out of the good as you get drained by the bad,” Stern said. “Good things happen to people … The pendulum swings back and forth.”

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.