After the storm, towns steamed at utilities’ slow response
By Lane Lambert
The Patriot Ledger
Aug 29, 2011
NORWELL — James Boudreau is usually an even-tempered person, but Monday the town administrator was as upset with National Grid as half the town’s residents.
“I don’t think I can say what I feel,” Boudreau said of the utility’s response to power failures from Hurricane Irene damage – and their estimate that all customers may not get their power back until this weekend.
“There’s a complete lack of information,” Boudreau said Monday afternoon, shortly after National Grid officials held a conference call to update Norwell and other area towns.
Norwell has lots of company with its frustrations. In Quincy, Mayor Thomas Koch also said he’s “extremely disappointed” with National Grid’s response there, while Marshfield administrator Rocco Longo said Irene seems to have brought more such delays than any storm he’s seen in 30 years as a town official.
“A lot of people are not happy right now,” Longo said.
In Braintree and Hingham, by contrast, the town-run power systems had all but a handful of customers back online by Monday afternoon. A dozen remained without power in Braintree, and the last 40 in Hingham were expected to have power by Monday night.
“I am very happy,” Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant general manager Paul Heanue said.
National Grid and NStar officials said the prolonged delays are due to the heavy damage to their lines and transmission systems suffered over the weekend.
“The damage is so extensive that in many places, we essentially have to re-build the electric system so we can restore power to customers,” said Werner Schweiger, NStar’s senior vice president of operations. “Given the sheer amount of work to be done, we know this will be a very time-consuming process.”
National Grid spokeswoman Amy Zorich said that utility’s transmission system was also wrecked, with 20 major line knocked out. She said National Grid has brought in crews from as far away as Colorado and Texas.
“We understand the frustration and ask people to be patient,” Zorich said. She said National Grid is doing its best to coordinate work with state and local officials.
As of Monday afternoon, National Grid had cut the number of customers without power from 500,000 to 325,000 in Massachusetts. NStar had cut their state total from 250,000 to 200,000. As of Monday those totals included 147,000 National Grid customers without power in Norfolk and Plymouth Counties and 110,000 NStar customers on the South Shore, Cape Cod and in New Bedford.
In Marshfield, the continued lack of power has forced the town to postpone school openings until Wednesday or later in the week. Marshfield has 15,000 households, and Longo said “it’s rare where you can find somebody with power.”
Customers in Quincy and Norwell endured a similar wait of several days after a powerful December snow storm. Boudreau said callers to town hall and the police and fire stations are being told the same thing – “Make your plans on that basis.”
“People are very good,” Boudreau said of their mood. “They just want to know how long it’s going to be.”
“The city was prepared,” Koch said. “We expected the same from National Grid. It was no secret the storm was going to hit.”
Koch said Quincy had 5 emergency crews ready – 3 from the city and 2 from contractors – while National Grid sent just 3 for Quincy and Weymouth.
Boudreau said the utility’s pace of cleanup and repair was less aggravating than a lack of communication. He pointed to a delayed cleanup on Summer Street, where two trees fell on power lines. The town was initially told the trees would be cleared Sunday night, but they weren’t removed around noon Monday.
In Braintree and Hingham, meanwhile, the town-run electric departments are sitting pretty.
Braintree Electric Light general manager William Bottiggi said only a dozen customers remained without power, out of 2,000 that lost power Sunday. The town has 15,000 customers. In Hingham, 3,000 of the town’s 9,500 customers lost power, with just 40 not back in service Monday afternoon.
Bottiggi and Hingham manager Heanue said their towns’ utility crews do tree-trimming year round, and they said their systems’ copper power lines held up better than widely-used aluminum lines, against the worst winds since Hurricane Bob in 1991.
“They can take a beating,” Bottiggi said. “Trees will bounce right off of them.”
Lane Lambert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.