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Residents rake NStar over outages
Utility offers defense at regional hearing
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2011
Beth Hanna shuffled between shelters with her elderly parents and her dog, after days without power had turned her Framingham home into a refrigerator.
Ann O’Grady spent long frustrating hours on the phone trying to alert NStar officials to live wires that were down in her Acton neighborhood.
And for Howard Schwartz, the tipping point was enduring long stretches without power twice within a few months: after Tropical Storm Irene in August and again after the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm.
“I will tell you something. When your heat is gone for four days, your house starts to get very chilly,’’ said the Framingham resident, his voice tinged with anger, at a state hearing last week on the recent outages. “I am a patient person, but to me, four days is excessive and should never have happened.’’
Outrage at the two major power outages bubbled over at the hearing, held Wednesday night in Framingham by the state Department of Public Utilities. Frustrated residents and local officials from across the area took NStar to task for both the length of the outages and a lack of accurate information about when electricity might be restored.
Originally scheduled to deal with concerns over NStar’s response to Tropical Storm Irene, the hearing quickly broadened into a forum for complaints about the utility company’s response to last month’s snowstorm as well.
Jack Hathaway, Norfolk’s town administrator, said that half of his community lost power after the latest storm, but communication was slow from NStar.
“Two days after the storm, we had not received a call back from NStar,’’ he said.
Compounding matters, many residents in the rural town rely on well water, and the pumps in their homes do not work if the power goes out.
“It puts us in a very dangerous situation,’’ Hathaway said.
Edward Nolan, Norfolk’s emergency management director, said he thought NStar did a reasonably good job getting the power back on after last month’s storm.
The problem, Nolan said, was his difficulty getting any meaningful information about the utility’s restoration efforts from the representatives he managed to reach.
“I thought NStar did a good job. I am not looking for faster service. I am looking for communication,’’ Nolan said.
Norfolk official Hathaway, as well as residents from other towns, also complained of automated calls from NStar saying power had been restored, only to find out that wasn’t the case when they returned home.
“I lost power on Saturday night, but on Monday I did get a call that I had power,’’ said Framingham resident Andrew Barrett. “When I rushed back home I found out it wasn’t true.’’
Michael Gowing, chairman of the Acton Board of Selectmen, told of how town officials tried to get NStar to move more quickly to take care of a downed power line, still live and entwined with a giant oak, that had effectively blocked off access to an entire neighborhood.
“It was low on NStar’s priority list,’’ he said.
NStar officials, while acknowledging there was room for improvement, defended the company’s efforts to restore power.
“I believe NStar has a very good storm response plan,’’ said Craig Hallstrom, vice president of electric field operations for NStar. “I believe we implemented that plan.’’
He also explained there may be a misunderstanding related to the computerized calls NStar sent out to customers saying power had been restored in their area.
The calls also gave customers the option of pressing a number to indicate they were still without power.
With this information, NStar could identify pockets of homes where power remained out even after service was restored in the general vicinity, he said.
However, Hallstrom said, NStar would be looking at ways to improve communications with its customers.
“That is something we heard loud and clear,’’ the vice president said.
Still, some residents at the hearing were not ready to give NStar a pass.
Lee Cohen noted he was stuck without power for days after the last storm, along with 70 other homeowners in his Holliston subdivision, even though the rest of the neighborhood of about 300 homes got their lights back on fairly quickly.
Adding to the mystery, there were no downed lines in the area that he could see.
“All I had to do was look two doors down and people had power,’’ Cohen recalled. “It obviously was a case of the infrastructure failing.’’
And Acton resident Barry Breslau noted he lost power for five days after the latest storm. He ended up spending lots of time at his daughter’s house in Littleton, where the town runs its own electric utility and where the lights were back on within a day or so.
“I don’t know what NStar is doing,’’ Breslau said, adding that the municipal power companies “appear to be much more efficient.’’