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SE Mass. challenge for crews

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Nearly half of felled wires were in three local towns

A variety of factors made Attleboro, Seekonk and Rehoboth three of the most difficult communities for National Grid to restore electrical power to after Tropical Storm Irene blew though the area, utility executives said Friday.

President Marcy Reed and Chief Operating Officer Ellen Smith said Southeastern Massachusetts in general - and the Attleboro area in particular - represented tougher challenges to repair crews than many other regions.

Brockton and Stoughton were two other problem areas.

One reason for the local troubles, they said, is the back end of the storm created higher wind gusts in the area that knocked down more trees and wires.

Of the 1,200 electrical wires felled by the storm throughout the 170 communities National Grid serves in Massachusetts, about half were in Attleboro, Seekonk and Rehoboth, Smith said. Many of those wires were along rights of way off the road and in wooded areas, she said.

Reed said 10 work crews had to walk to one problem area in a hidden right of way because it was so far off the road. Residents could not see all the work that was being done.

"There was a perception problem in Seekonk because we weren't visible," she said.

As of Friday afternoon, about 1,000 of the 14,000 National Grid customers still without power were in Seekonk. Another 300 were in Attleboro.

Reed said National Grid intended to have power restored to 98 percent of its customers by the end of the day and to all customers by Sunday night.

She said the remaining work is the most labor intensive because it involves reconnecting individual homes and small neighborhoods. All of the larger problems have been fixed, she said.

"We're down to the onesies and twosies," she said.

The utility pulled in extra workers from as far away as Texas and Canada to help. In total, 1,430 line workers were out in the field restoring power, she said.

Despite the effort, National Grid has come under intense criticism from state and municipal officials who said the utility was ill prepared for the storm and failed to effectively communicate with government and public safety departments.

Reed, however, would not comment on the substance of a proposal by state Rep. Daniel Winslow, R-Norfolk, to require utilities to rebate two days of fees to customers for every day they went without power.

She said she would have to look at legislation first and talk to Winslow.

Smith also rejected suggestions that National Grid's size made it inefficient in responding to the storm damage. Many officials have pointed out that small municipal electrical departments restored power more quickly than the giant utility.

She said National Grid's size gives it more access to resources and additional workers to respond.