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One year ago today, ice storm of '08 left 1.4 million in New England powerless

By David Perry,
Updated: 12/11/2009

The trouble began one year ago, with a chilly rain.

And in the dead of a Thursday night, rain turned to ice, coating everything.

Tree limbs cascaded to Earth with a crackle, bang and a whoosh.

Trees tumbled into yards, poked through roofs and blocked roads.

Power lines, and the poles that held them aloft, buckled and snapped.

And for days -- in some cases, weeks -- people across the region gripped by the Dec. 11-12 ice storm struggled to come to terms with life without heat or electricity. Hotels filled, emergency shelters opened, schools closed, hardware-store shelves emptied, and utility crews worked around the clock to restore power. The Lowell Humane Society moved its animals to foster care or other shelters.

The ice storm left 1.4 million New Englanders without power, some for nearly two weeks.

T.J. McCarthy, who oversaw the efforts of Lowell's public-works department from a headquarters without power and with a leaky roof, had a way of describing the early hours of the storm's aftermath. "Welcome to hell."

McCarthy said that even with more than 11,000 customers without power, Lowell's situation was "nothing near as bad as what they had among our neighbors to the west."

By 10 p.m. on Dec. 11, Leominster Fire Chief Ronald Pierce knew, "We were in trouble."
"It started with a little debris, and then the calls came in really quickly," he said. "There were trees all over the place. In one night, the devastation it caused was just unbelievable."

Charlie Coggins, Leominster's emergency management director, recalled driving along Route 2, approaching Route 12, when Leominster came into view.

"And I said, 'Oh, my God.' It looked like we were at war. You could see the flashes of light where the transformers were blowing. Every part of the city got hit. Everything got just covered in ice. It was one heck of a scene."

Winter's official arrival was still 10 days away.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency called the ice storm of '08 "one of the largest ice storms in decades." FEMA said this week it provided nearly $80 million in disaster relief to New England, including $49.2 million to Massachusetts. Yesterday, the state gave $5.5 million to 165 cities and towns in nine counties.

Unitil, the Hampton, N.H.-based utility, became a symbol of failed response. Customers in Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby were without power for as long as two weeks. Bitterness over Unitil's response lingers.

Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation subjecting public utilities to steeper penalties for service failures.

"Throughout this ordeal, public utility companies, particularly Unitil, failed the public," the governor told a crowd in Lunenburg.

Unitil, which has 170,000 customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, has since worked to fix its image, beef up its emergency crews and refine its response procedures.

Susan Curran-Poirier, 52, of Fitchburg, lived without power and without answers from calls to Unitil for 12 days. She was on hold for three hours at one point. Finally, she said, National Grid crews began assisting Unitil workers.

"If I was waiting for Unitil," she said, "I'd probably still be waiting."

On Tuesday, New Hampshire's Public Utilities Commission released a report on the storm response, saying utilities would perform better with routine emergency reviews and beefed-up emergency plans. A consultant noted that Unitil "was inadequate and that its restoration strategy was inappropriate."

National Grid, which serves about 3.3 million customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York, saw storm outages to about 326,000 customers in Massachusetts.

"I think they've worked to improve communications and improve access points to get information," McCarthy said of Lowell's DPW.

In Chelmsford, where some sections of town were without power for five days, Fire Chief Jack Parow said last January that communications between the town and National Grid "failed dramatically.

"We couldn't get a hold of anyone when we needed to," he added.

But in Littleton and Groton, towns with their own power departments, things were different. Though 2,500 of the 4,500 customers of Groton Electric Light Department lost power, by Saturday morning, Dec. 13, 97 percent had power restored. By Monday, all but 20 were back on line.

By 10 p.m., on the night of the storm, Jay Willets, the foreman for Groton Electric Light, knew it was going to be bad.

"Historically, once ice starts, very seldom does it stop," he said yesterday. "I've been here since 1983, and never did I see anything like that one."

He called GELD General Manager Kevin Kelly. By 1 a.m., police, fire and rescue crews were gathered at the facility. They knew the town and one another. They could concentrate on one town, not many.

Around 2:30 Friday morning, Kelly called municipal light-department crews from Belmont and Reading for aid. Reading sent nine men and four trucks. Belmont, six men and three trucks. They were in place before breakfast. GELD had three crews.

"You know, we didn't get hit as hard as Pepperell," Willets said. "And thank God the wires were underground in the section of town that's elevated."

The crews from Belmont and Reading were "incredibly surprised by the people of Groton," Willets said.

"They were telling us that when they work on the side of the road, people go by and flip them off all the time" where they normally work.

But when they returned to the headquarters to resupply or change clothes, the crews found thanks.

"Huge pans of lasagna," Willets said. "Warm pans with brownies and cookies. Somebody made all different types of sandwiches. And we'd be out working and people would bring out hot coffee. The guys from Belmont and Reading couldn't believe it. You're up two, three days, and it makes all the difference."

Marisa Donelan of the Sentinel and Enterprise of Fitchburg contributed material to this report.