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Customers of local electric utilities pleased with response following storm

By Vicki-Ann Downing
The Enterprise
Sep 04, 2011

Marc Vasconcellos/The Enterprise
A National Grid worker repairs downed wires in Abington recently.

Early last Sunday morning, hours before Tropical Storm Irene unleashed the fullness of its windy fury on southeastern Massachusetts, the power went out at Charles B. Shea’s house on Cedar Street in Middleboro.

Thirty hours later, still without electricity and with medication in the house that required cooling, Shea needed answers. So, like people in municipalities everywhere after the hurricane, he turned to Town Hall with his questions.

What happened next was unique to Middleboro, though:

After speaking with Shea, Caroline LaCroix, the town manager’s assistant, hung up the telephone and walked across Main Street into the offices of the Middleboro Gas and Electric Co., the community-owned provider of electricity to Middleboro and Lakeville since 1893.

Within 45 minutes, someone from the utility called Shea on his cell phone, warning him his lights might not be on until Tuesday because so many trees were down in his area. Later, Shea spoke with electric crews on his street, who gave him the same message.

But at 6 o’clock Monday night, less than three hours after his first call, his lights were on.

“I’m telling you, the service, the response to my phone call, was over and above what I had expected,” said Shea, who has lived in town for 10 years. “I was pleasantly surprised at the honest and polite and informative response I got.”

Shea’s story would leave many customers of National Grid – the region’s main supplier of electricity – envious, especially those whose homes were without power for more than five days, and whose phone calls in search of answers were met with automated wait times.

Early Friday afternoon, National Grid reported 14,604 customers in Massachusetts still without power, 1,000 of them in Stoughton – though the number dropped to 90 later in the day. On Saturday evening, National Grid sent out a news release saying power was restored to all of its customers.

Meanwhile, lights were shining at 6 p.m. Thursday for all 35,000 customers of the Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant in Taunton, Raynham, Berkley and Lakeville, and for all 15,000 customers of the Middleboro Gas and Electric Co. in Middleboro and Lakeville.

Is National Grid – a utility headquartered in England, with hundreds of thousands of customers in New York and New England too big to respond quickly in such an emergency?

In a conference call on Friday afternoon, Marcy Reed, the new regional president of National Grid in Massachusetts, said she didn’t think so.

“I’m not sure the smaller utilities are responding better than we are,” said Reed. “We both have challenges of limited resources in this particular situation. We bring a lot to the table because of our size.”

Reed and Ellen Smith, chief operations officer, noted that the utility was able to call in crews from areas unaffected by the hurricane, such as Quebec and Texas. National Grid had 138 two-man crews on duty in Massachusetts, working 16-hour shifts, assisted by 13 mutual aid crews from other areas.

Reed said National Grid took advance storm preparations seriously – even though she herself left for a vacation in Hawaii on Thursday, three days before the hurricane hit. Reed cut short the vacation and returned to Massachusetts on Tuesday afternoon.

“There was no point in time that National Grid as a utility or I personally felt the storm wasn’t going to hit,” said Reed.

Reed also said the hurricane response was not hampered by the company’s announcement in February that it would cut 1,200 jobs, about 7 percent of its United States workforce.

“None of our field resources were impacted by the restructuring,” said Reed.

‘Come down to the office’

At the Middleboro Gas and Electric Co., preparation for the hurricane began days in advance, said spokesman Sandra Richter.

The utility was able to call in help from other local utilities not as hard hit by the storm – Holden, Wellesley, Hingham and Braintree – to assist its 18 linemen. Also, in advance, it secured the promise of help from two crews from Barnes Tree Service of Rochester.

The utility’s 15,000 customers are scattered across 101 square miles. At the worst point, 8,000 were without power, though every customer probably lost service at some point, Richter said.

“We were working and repairing throughout the storm,” said Richter. “To a certain extent, that saved us. We were able to clean up a little bit faster after the fact.”

The first 24 hours after the storm were spent assessing damage, Richter said. Customers called in reports of outages, and of course, “Those who couldn’t get through on the phone system could come down to the office,” said Richter.

The company also kept some transformers and utility poles on hand for repairs. Poles are big and hard to store, so if more poles had come down in the hurricane, “everybody would be scrambling, and people would be out for a long time,” Richter said.

“The best part of our storm preparations begins well before a storm hits,” said Cindy Angus, spokesman for the Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant.

“We have an had an extensive and aggressive tree-trimming program going on for the better part of a decade. A lot of our area is very wooded and that’s generally the area that gets hit hardest when winds blow through. We probably get the biggest bang for our buck well in advance of the storm.”

Angus said planning for a hurricane is “not an exact science.” But the TMLP had crews at work at 6 a.m. Sunday, clearing trees that fell early in the storm, and they worked right through the storm, she said.

“That helped us quite a bit,” said Angus.

Better job of education

Smith, the COO for National Grid, said Friday that she believes the utility could do a better job of explaining to customers how electricity is restored after a major outage.

Service is restored first to areas on main lines, hospitals and public safety offices, and those serving the greatest number of people. Scattered outages in remote locations take the longest.

In terms of loss of electricity, the hardest-hit areas of the state were in southeastern Massachusetts – in Pembroke, Scituate, Bridgewater, Brockton and Stoughton, the utility said.

In Stoughton, 1,200 sections of wire came to the ground. Eighteen trees fell. Nine utility poles broke and eight transformers needed replacement. At one point, 85 percent of the town, about 8,000 customers, lacked electricity.

Restoration of service was slow because there weren’t many “feeder lines” – lines serving many customers – affected, Smith said.