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FEELING POWERLESS KENMORE PLAGUED BY UNEXPLAINED BLACKOUTS

For Doris Doyle, the summer of 1999 -- when the lights went out in Kenmore, over and over again -- has been a harrowing experience.

Bedridden with Lou Gehrig's disease, Mrs. Doyle, 73, depends on a ventilator and suctioning device to keep her alive. If the power fails, she uses a backup battery. But it only lasts so long.

That's made for some nerve-wracking moments for Mrs. Doyle, one of the roughly 1,100 village residents who have endured at least 13 blackouts so far this year. Most have occurred during the hottest of the summer months -- and some have lasted up to 13 hours at a time.

No one, including those at Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., can explain why Kenmore keeps going dark.

Other places -- such as North Tonawanda and parts of Amherst -- have experienced more blackouts than normal this summer. But Kenmore's situation is just plain freakish, according to Niagara Mohawk representatives and local officials.

"There's really something out of the ordinary here," said Stephen Brady, Niagara Mohawk spokesman. "You expect one or two outages now and then, maybe three or four. Then you start getting up to six, eight, ten outages and it's like, 'There's something really wrong here.' "

For many in Kenmore, the unexplained blackouts have been minor annoyances -- if pesky ones.

At Deerhurst Presbyterian Church, for example, the failures have sent workers scurrying to reboot computers and reprogram answering machines.

And for the owners of the upscale Hourglass restaurant, the blackouts have turned more than one frozen dessert into a soggy mess.

"When my wife does pies and doughs, she needs to keep them in the freezer to keep them cold," said Hourglass owner Terry G. Bechakas, who said his wife makes the desserts at the couple's Leicester Road home. "So this does bother us."

But for others, like Mrs. Doyle, the blackouts aren't causing frustration -- they're causing panic and leading to serious health concerns.

"My family is in a panic over this," said Stephanie Doyle, 39, speaking on her mother's behalf. "My mother is really fatigued and very nervous. She's questioning whether she wants to keep going -- she feels this is a constant threat to her."

The minute the village's power flickers out, Mrs. Doyle now prepares herself for the possibility of an ambulance ride from her Crosby Avenue home to Kenmore Mercy Hospital, which is located in a section of the 16,500-person village unaffected by the failures.

Mrs. Doyle sees it as her only choice, with some of the blackouts starting to last longer than the five-hour life span of her ventilator's backup battery, her daughter said.

"If the power goes out . . . and if we can't get an ambulance out here soon enough, she just dies," said Ms. Doyle, visiting her parents from her home in Boston, Mass.

At Niagara Mohawk, representatives said the problem area of the village has been identified as the densely residential section roughly bounded by Delaware Road, Irving Terrace, Crosby Avenue and Kenmore Avenue, although not all streets in that area have been affected.

Two feeder lines that carry power to homes and businesses in the area are believed to be the source of the problem, said NiMo spokesman Brady.

That means that of the area's 13 substantial power failures -- those lasting more than a moment or two -- some have affected all 1,100 customers, while others have only affected one segment of the area or another, Brady said.

For example, he said, about half the customers in the area -- or about 600 homes and businesses -- lost power for as long as 13 hours in May, on the night of a crucial Sabres game.

Situations like that -- which result in "dozens and dozens" of phone calls to the power company -- have prompted crews to step up efforts to find the problems with the two lines, Brady said.

Many mechanical components, as well as possible tree-limb and animal-related causes, have already been checked, Brady said.

Next is a more thorough look at the seven or eight places in the affected area where the combination aboveground/underground lines connect to one another, he said.

"Some of this stuff is just going to happen," Brady said. "But in the case of Kenmore, we recognize that there's something really not right there. We're just telling people that -- we don't know what the problem is, but we're looking for it."

In the meantime -- with no resolution to their fears in sight -- the Doyle family's relationship with the village has deteriorated as the blackouts continue.

The family recently came up with the idea of buying their own generator for use in emergency situations, proposing to village officials that the machine be kept at the Kenmore Volunteer Fire Department when not needed.

Because Rodger Doyle, Mrs. Doyle's 74-year-old husband, isn't able to start a generator himself, the family's request was that firefighters come to their home and start the generator in the case of a prolonged power failure.

But John W. Beaumont, mayor of the village and a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, said liability concerns make that impossible.

While he sympathizes with Mrs. Doyle's condition, Beaumont -- himself a longtime Niagara Mohawk employee, although his job is unrelated to service in the village -- said it is not a municipal problem but a problem the family will have to work out for themselves.

In the meantime, Beaumont said the village has offered to provide free recharging of Mrs. Doyle's backup battery at the Fire Department when necessary. So far the family has declined.

In any case, Beaumont said he hopes the problem will be found -- and fixed -- soon.

"It's a true inconvenience to these people. The number of hours they've been out is just way, way, way too high," he said. "But it's just an oddball situation. And everyone is suffering."

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