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Light at the end of the tunnel for those still without power

By Grant Welker,

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The house at 1962 Lakeview Ave. in Dracut sustained roof damage from a large tree that sliced through it as a result of Hurricane Sandy. According to town records, the home is unoccupied and is owned by Robert A. and Sarah K. Burnaby, of the same address. Sun/Jon Hill

National Grid is estimating that by midnight Friday, everyone in Greater Lowell should have their power restored.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, the number of customers still without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy -- which includes households and businesses -- numbered more than 1,000 in Billerica, Chelmsford and Dracut. National Grid has estimated that it could take until 11:59 p.m. Friday to restore power to those and other customers.

Greater Lowell had greater proportions of people without power by Wednesday afternoon than communities in southeastern Massachusetts, where the storm struck with greater force.

All of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket had 2 percent or less of customers without power, according to utility companies. By comparison, Billerica, Chelmsford and Westford each had more than 9 percent without power, and Tyngsboro had more than 16 percent.

Frustration was building for many who have been without power since Monday. In Chelmsford, a small neighborhood off Mill Road remained without power Wednesday while many adjacent streets had already had their power restored.

"It's been miserable and frustrating," said Bob Sexton, a Queen Street resident. He purchased a generator after recent outages after realizing he would save more in the long run by not having to throw away perishable food.

Like Sexton, a neighbor, Lucy Douty, was also angry at the response from National Grid, which they said was not communicating well with estimates on when power could be restored.

"They're giving us no information, is the bottom line," said Douty, calling customer-service representatives for the company rude and unhelpful. People could always do better, she said, but "they're not trying to do better."

In Westford, residents of Phillips Circle, a neighborhood off Concord Road, said they're always among the last to have service restored. Many have resorted to using generators, like Janelle Cioffi, who bought one after being without power for a week after last October's snowstorm.

Even with power from a generator, Cioffi was still frustrated at the lack of quick restoration. "I'm still on my last nerve," she said.

Her neighbor, Linda Brown, was more understanding, even without a generator. She was still home-schooling her children by the warmth of their wood stove, and improvising by using water from their pool cover to flush toilets.

"It's one of few opportunities to work together as neighbors," Brown said. "When they get to us," she said of National Grid crews, "they get to us."

Marcy Reed, the National Grid president for Massachusetts, said that priority for restoring power is given first to any transmission system that is down, calling it the "backbone of the network." Priority is then placed on dozens of National Grid substations across the state that can get blown out during high winds.

Once those networks are up and running, National Grid works first to restore power to critical locations such as hospitals, police and fire stations and critical-care facilities. At that point, the utility company works to restore outages that affect larger swaths of people. More rural areas might have power restored later than urban areas simply because they have smaller numbers of people impacted by any given outage, Reed said.

The outages, while still in the thousands, were down significantly from their peak.

"We are progressing ahead of schedule," Reed, who conducted a conference call with reporters from Chelmsford, said Wednesday afternoon. National Grid outages statewide were down to one-fifth of their peak, and power was being restored twice as fast as after Hurricane Irene, she said.

Officials in Chelmsford and Westford, among the hardest hit with outages in the area, expressed frustration with restoration efforts from National Grid.

"I can honestly say I haven't seen any improvement since the last event," Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross said, referring to the snowstorm last October, which kept many in the dark for much of a week.

"I have a liaison (to National Grid) but he has no information for me. I think that's the most frustrating part, that people can't get information on when power will be restored."

Most feedback from towns on the liaisons has been positive, said Reed, who said she was "quite pleased" with the process.

Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen, who on Tuesday said National Grid's restoration efforts were worse than during last year's damaging storms, said on Wednesday that things had improved. Downed trees and power lines were removed from roads, finally freeing up streets for emergency vehicles and residents.

"Things are trending in the right direction," Cohen said.

National Grid expected to have the number of customers without power in Chelmsford down to about 800 by late in the day Wednesday, he said.

For area communities served by NStar, the restoration estimates were slightly better. The utility company said it expected to restore service to Bedford, Burlington and Carlisle by Thursday night. Carlisle, which at the height of the storm had more than 90 percent without power, was down to one-fourth late Wednesday afternoon.

Power was restored more quickly in towns that have their own electric utility departments.

In Littleton, winds knocked down six utility poles on Route 119 Monday afternoon but crews worked through the night to have the poles back up and the road reopened by 8 a.m. Tuesday. In Groton, the local electric department had power restored to all but 10 percent of that community as early as Tuesday morning. The town cited aggressive tree-trimming efforts since last October's snowstorm.

Wilmington, part of a utility that covers a total of four towns, had only 16 customers without power late afternoon Wednesday.