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Light blight extinguished as last of Bay State’s power restored

By John Zaremba
Sunday, September 4, 2011
National Grid and NStar [NST] said they restored power late yesterday to the last of the half-million Bay Staters blacked out by Tropical Storm Irene, ending a week of a public-relations disaster that included calls for a legislative hearing, heavy criticism by local officials, an inquiry by the Attorney General’s office and outrage over Grid’s Massachusetts president hopping a plane to Hawaii as the storm raced toward New England.

“The tepid response of both utilities has been woefully insufficient,” said state Sen. Robert L. Hedlund, whose South Shore district includes thousands of National Grid customers who lost power for almost a week. “Many of the people I’ve spoken with are upset by the lack of accountability more than anything. These companies were basically unreachable by phone, and when you did get through, you still could not get any useful information.”

Hedlund (R-Weymouth) is among the lawmakers calling for a Beacon Hill hearing with the heads of both utilities, and is pushing for greater competition in the electric business by allowing municipal power companies to serve customers beyond their town boundaries. Leaders from several communities including Bridgewater and Brockton said they want to consider ways to cease business with National Grid, including the formation of municipal power companies.

Consumer outrage throughout the blackout was widespread but not universal. Some customers took days of outages in stride, thankful they didn’t have to bear the brunt of other recent disasters such as tornadoes in the southern Midwest. Michael Widrow of Stoughton lost power for four days, and with it several garbage bags’ worth of perishable food.

“We were without power from Sunday until Thursday. Whoop-de-do,” he said as he tossed his spoiled fare into a garbage truck at the town’s recycling center yesterday, while fellow residents lined up to chuck downed tree limbs into a wood chipper. “I told my daughter, there’s a town in Missouri that got wiped off the map.”

He said people have been too quick to criticize the utilities and politicize the power outages — especially those who don’t know what it takes to run a public utility.

“How does the lay person know what goes into it?” he said.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office tagged National Grid with a $1 million fine for its slow response to blackouts after a blizzard in December, fired off a list of questions to both power providers this week, giving them 30 days to detail how they prepared for the storm, how quickly they responded to reports of downed lines and how they communicated with local officials throughout.

As outages dwindled into the dozens late yesterday, a Grid spokeswoman, whose company drew union ire when its Massachusetts president spent the first few days of the restoration on a Hawaiian getaway, apologized to customers and announced that the company had made a $335,000 Red Cross donation.

“We recognize that this has been an extremely difficult experience for all of our customers,” company spokeswoman Debbie Drew said. “We appreciate the patience that so many of our customers have had over these trying days.”