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Customers Testified: NSTAR's Communication, Infrastructure Failed

Less than 50 individuals attended a state hearing on NSTAR's response to customers after Irene and the unsual October snowstorm at Walsh Middle School in Framingham Wednesday night.

By Susan Petroni
November 17, 2011

During the October Nor'easter or Snowtober storm, Beth Hanna lost power, like more than 5,000 NSTAR customers in Framingham.

A fulltime caregiver for her parents, age 89 and 87, she called NSTAR to report the outage. She called NSTAR often. Days later and still without power she had to leave her home, as one of her parents had a body temperature of 97 degrees. They went to the Callahan Senior Center but were told they had to leave when it closed at 4:30 p.m. She learned Framingham had no shelter and had to take the octogenarians and her dog to the nearest shelter at the Wayland Middle School. Uncomfortable, they left after midnight only to return for the warmth again at 7 in the morning. The shelter in Wayland closed before power was returned to her North Framingham home. To say she was frustrated with the NSTAR's power restoration process and communication would be an understatement.

Hanna, was one of a half dozen NSTAR customers who testified Wednesday night at a hearing by the Massachusetts Department of Utilities at Walsh Middle School on the response of NSTAR following Irene and the unusual October snowstorm.

Many of the residents, who provided sworn testimony Wednesday night, were frustrated and angry with the lack of communication and response by NSTAR during Snowtober given that many of the same neighborhoods were without power for days in August/September after Irene rolled through Massachusetts.

NSTAR VP of Customer Care Penni Conner told those in attendance Wednesday night her CEO reminds them  "our customers don't like to be in the dark figuratively and literally."

She said that NSTAR was able to provide a live person for customers who called on Tuesday 65% of the time and 90% of the time by Thursday, after Irene. She said during the outages NSTAR reps were calling those without power twice a day to give them updates.

But NSTAR customers, who provided swown testimony at Walsh Middle, told a different view of communication.

"I really feel like we are in the dark," Andrea Barrett, who lives in Framingham and said she threw away alot of food twice. After hearing that the CEO of NSTAR makes $7.9 million she suggested "we should all get a refund, $20 back to each customer to say we (NSTAR) are sorry."

One Acton resident testified that three times he received a call from NSTAR that power was restored only to learn each time he arrived home, it had not.

Howard Schwartz of Framingham testified that four days without power is "excessive. It should never occur."

Schwartz was one of a handful of NSTAR customers who testified he lost power in both storms. He said NSTAR didn't learn any lessons from Irene, when weeks later, the outage happened again, this time without power and heat.

Andrea Wohl of Framingham said she didn't understand how the same transformer could blow during Irene and again during the snowstorm. "Why don't they (NSTAR) fix it?"

Holliston resident Lee Cohen described a similiar tale in his neighborhood. He said all the homes in the subdivision lost power during Irene on Sunday, but a select 70 homes didn't get power back until Wednesday. And when the snowstorm stuck, the same 70 homes were again days without power and heat.

"Obviously, it is a case of infrastructure failure," he said. He suggested NSTAR's solution to the Irene problem was just a Band-Aid, since the problem happened again in October.

Residents were not the only ones who gave sworn testimony about the lack of communication.

Edward Nolan, Norfolk's director of emergency management said a live person isn't necessary any better than a computer in giving information.

He said he was looking for "accurate, useful information," and did not get it. He said Norfolk was "not looking for faster service ... but better communication."

Norfolk's town administrator testified that at one point 48% of the town was without power. And two days after the storm struck, he still had no direct call from NSTAR and most of those without power were on well water and thus had no power and no water.

No town officials from Framingham spoke or were in attendance. An aide from Rep. Chris Walsh's office was in the audience. Both during the aftermath from Irene and Snowtober frustrated residents found help from Walsh and his office, when communication was less than forthcoming from NSTAR. (Town and emergency management leaders may submit written testimony to the department of public utilities.)

NSTAR Vice President Craig Hallstrom said post-Irene more than 500,000 NSTAR customers lost power, but within 72 hours 97% of power was restored; and 232,000 customers were restored within an hour of going out.

This was the fourth and final hearing as part of the investigation into NSTAR and National Grid response to customers after Irene by the State's department of public utilities. The other hearings were held in Plymouth, Barnstable and New Bedford.

The department refused to comment or answer questions during Wednesday night's hearing. A spokesperson for the department said this was the first steps in the state's investigation.

The state can levy fines and requirements utility companies update and change policies and procedures based on the investigation.

If you could not attend Wednesday's hearing, the state department of public utilities is accepting written testimony on NSTAR's response during either storm until Wednesday, Nov. 23.