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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Power companies preparing for worst


The forecast keeps changing, but with the possibility of an ice storm today, power companies are contacting extra crews to be available if needed.

Yesterday afternoon, the National Weather Service was predicting snow this morning and into the afternoon, possibly changing to sleet and freezing rain. The forecast was in flux at the time power companies were preparing, but both municipal and public utilities were doing the best they could to anticipate the weather and be prepared if the worst occurs.

Memories are fresh of the 2008 ice storm that hit Central and Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. The ice storm took down trees and power lines, leading to massive power outages that had some residents without power for as long as two weeks.

Power companies had that as a worst-case scenario to be preparing for when weather reports yesterday morning indicated the possibility of a quarter inch or more of ice falling in the storm. Later reports muted that somewhat, but power companies said they were looking to have enough crews available to begin addressing damage if it occurred.

“We've been monitoring the situation since yesterday,” Alec O'Meara, a spokesman for Unitil, said yesterday afternoon. “This morning was the first forecast that came in that was serious with a quarter inch of ice in the Fitchburg area.”

A quarter inch of ice indicates the storm could prove to be a problem. The 2008 ice storm dropped a half inch of ice.

Mr. O'Meara said the ice forecast improved somewhat during the day yesterday, but over the past few days, the snow predictions went from being light and fluffy to heavy, wet snow, which also creates problems. He said Unitil has signed up 65 additional crews to be available for its territories with 20 in the Fitchburg area alone. He also said the company has made first contact with 50 other crews to let them know they might be called in to help if needed.

The 50 additional crews were contacted because of he possibility of icing also in upstate New York and Vermont and the demand for crews that could generate. They could be called in if the worst occurs.

David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said 60 additional crews have been contacted to supplement the company's regular crews expected to be at work today in the Marlboro-Worcester area, also with an eye toward Western Massachusetts. The company can call on its 130 regular forestry crews to do tree clearing if ice damage occurs in any of its communities. He said the latest forecast he received was that the Berkshires may get the worst of any icing, and areas west of the Quabbin Reservoir, especially in valleys, could have some ice problems.

“In the areas where there is a possibility of ice, we'll be putting on the extra crews,” he said “We have to remain flexible.”

Mr. O'Meara said Unitil should be ready to open emergency centers if needed during the storm.

Mr. Graves said National Grid gets three or four weather forecasts each day to monitor conditions. He said the company should be getting its latest forecast at 9 a.m. today and should have a better sense of what the storm is doing.

Sean Hamilton, manager of Sterling Municipal Light Co., said ice storms can be among the most difficult for customers because, unlike storms in spring, summer and fall, when an ice storm hits and the power goes out, it is cold. Customers face many challenges, including frozen pipes and bitterly cold living conditions, especially if they don't have wood heat to turn to.

“The difference is often how people help people during the storm,” he said.

Mr. Hamilton said he has been monitoring the storm, but Sterling Municipal Light Co. also began building inventory before winter to have parts on hand if damage occurs.

“We are as ready as we can be,” he said.

Mr. Hamilton said the many municipal light companies in Central Massachusetts have a mutual aid agreement that would result in cities and towns outside the damage area sending crews to communities in need of assistance. He was not working for Sterling when the 2008 ice storm hit, but he knows the value of the relationship among municipal power companies. He was manager of Templeton Municipal Light and Water Co at the time. The town was hit about as hard as Sterling. The National Guard was brought in to assist with reopening roads in the community while the light company worked to restore power. He said Templeton received help from the Norwood and Holyoke power companies. He said Templeton also has sent its workers to other communities to help out in disasters, including sending workers to Taunton during Hurricane Bob.

An ice storm is not easy to predict, he said. It can be a very localized event, depending on temperature fluctuations.

“We're watching the weather constantly. It can be a degree or two either way that makes the difference,” Mr. Hamilton said.

The 2008 ice storm took down thousands of trees in Central Massachusetts and Mr. Hamilton said he hopes that will make a difference in future ice storms. Towns that were hard hit had many sick or damaged trees fall. Those tree were cleared away after the storm.

With an ice storm possible, residents should make sure they have flashlights available with fresh batteries, a fist aid kit, a battery operated clock, bottled water, canned foods and a manual can opener. It is also recommended people keep a list of important telephone numbers and a car charger for cell phones.

Should there be a power outage, Unitil customers in Massachusetts should call (888) 301-7700. National Grid may be contacted at (800) 465-1212. Residents living in communities with municipal electric companies should contact those companies directly to report outages.