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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

For many, rebound from storm is a long and tiring process Forecast could mean more power outages

wt_121708-1 Korey Pontbriand of Asplundh tree contractors clears lines on Phillipston Road in Barre this morning. Mr. Pontbriand is from North Brookfield. (T&G Staff / CHRISTINE PETERSON)

wt_121708-2 Too busy to take a break, Paxton Municipal Light Department Manager Diane K. Dillman reacts yesterday to Light Board Chairman Michael J. Benoit's offer to get lunch. (T&G Staff / CHRIS CHRISTO)

PAXTON— Diane K. Dillman sat hunched over at her desk, talking on a cell phone, her elbows resting on her knees, trying to coordinate assistance from Hudson’s municipal light department to send a service truck to help her small department restore power to a town devastated by last week's ice storm.

Ms. Dillman, manager of the Paxton Municipal Light Department, said that about 1,300 of the town's 1,725 customers were still without power yesterday. Most will be back in service on Friday, though there could be some isolated neighborhoods and homes that could take longer, she said.

That was far more optimistic than the three to five days she had predicted earlier in the day.

“They got a lot done today," she said. “We're hoping to energize more lines tonight. It's looking a lot better. We still have to get into the neighborhoods, and there may be some stragglers. We think by Friday that most will be on."

Meanwhile, the slow work of clearing downed trees, replacing utility poles, stringing wire and repairing connections continues across parts of Central Massachusetts.

More than 12,000 customers of Fitchburg Gas and Electric were without power in northern Central Massachusetts, and more than 9,000 National Grid customers in the city of Worcester were in the dark last night. Statewide, there were 57,000 homes without power.

In Holden, 2,500 residents were without power last night.

Rain and snow forecast for overnight could cause new outages and slow restoration efforts, National Grid warned. Plowing will be complicated by the many electrical lines that remain on the ground on “every street," said Holden Town Manager Brian J. Bullock.

Restoration of electric power in Fitchburg should be complete by the end of tomorrow, said George R. Gantz, senior vice president of Unitil Corp., the New Hampshire parent of Fitchburg Gas and Electric that provides power to more than 28,000 customers in northern Worcester County.

Lunenburg and Townsend should see power back on the next day, he said. Ashby, particularly hard hit, could take over the weekend, he added.

“There was exceptional damage on the lines," Mr. Gantz said. “In some places, every piece of equipment had to be replaced. Today we were able to pick up steam. The debris had been cleared better. It's been steadily improving from where it was over the weekend.

“Ashby was a war zone. The National Guard helped get that huge mess out of the way so we could start working.

“Obviously, our service area in Massachusetts was hardest hit, with 100 percent affected, and it was the hardest to bring back. We have more crews working in Mass., but it will take a longer time."


H. Bradford White Jr., manager of the West Boylston Municipal Light Plant, said 300 residents were without electricity at 4:30 p.m. yesterday. At the height of the outage, all of the town's 3,200 customers were without power. He said he expects to have everyone reconnected by this weekend.


“The large fixes are almost done," he said. “Now, it's a house at one end of town and another house in another section."

Charter Communications said about 20,000 customers in Central Massachusetts, or about 10 percent of its customer base in the region, lacked cable as of mid-afternoon yesterday. Thomas P. Cohan, director of government relations, said about 450 Charter employees were working in the region. He said customers who have electricity but still lack cable should contact the company via e-mail at

Mr. Cohan said Charter crews were beginning to work yesterday in areas where electricity was recently restored, including Barre, Leicester, Rutland, Hubbardston and Oakham.

Paxton and the northern section of Worcester are still without power, meaning cable restoration can't yet occur, he said. Approximately 1,000 cable connections to Worcester houses need to be repaired, he said. In Holden, cable service has been restored to about 50 percent of the town, Mr. Cohan said.

Paxton is one of several small towns with its own power company, and with three full-time workers, is dependent on help from other departments to bring power back to customers in a mass outage. There are 75 crews working in the city of Worcester alone.

And in 10 years as manager, Ms. Dillman has seen some serious storm consequences, but none as widespread as this, she said.

With 30 miles of overhead wire and another 10 miles of underground wire, the department has had an uphill battle to clear lines of downed and hanging trees and limbs, string new wire and re-establish electrical connections.

“The last time we had this kind of storm, it took 12 hours for the ice to build," she said, wearing a fleece vest over a flowered turtleneck. “This time it took only four hours."

She recalled an ice storm in 1998 that caused tree damage and power outages on Asnebumskit Hill and some higher elevations in town. That storm affected only 7 percent to 10 percent of the town, and another in 2002 caused outages in the southerly third of the town, she recalled.

“This one affected 100 percent of the town," she said. “It's devastated."

She said she was in New Hampshire when the storm started last Thursday, and headed back at 2:30 a.m. the following day.

“My husband, Bob, was in here answering the phone, and had the mutual aid book out. I was bobbing weaving around trees and wires. I didn't know if I was going to get back. It was really unsafe to drive."

She said that during the storm crews from Westfield and Chicopee were staged until it was safe to start working. Since then, crews from Concord and Merrimac arrived to help out, she said. With Hudson mopping up after its own outages, she was hopeful of getting a crew from that town as well.

The town's three municipal power employees are usually enough to restore service where there are minor outages, she said.

“I had arrangements with some municipal departments where we could get them if we needed," she said. “Some of them are in the same boat that we are.

“Mass. Electric has their own problems."

The town has an electrical substation operated by National Grid on the town line that was put out of service during the storm, and National Grid had the transmission line from the substation to the town by 9 p.m. Saturday, she said.

Paxton was able to restore power to about 250 customers on Pleasant and West streets at 3:30 Sunday afternoon, then more customers on Grove Street the following day, Ms. Dillman said.

“The problem is the side streets are not on," she said. “The main feeders are on. The ice finally came off yesterday afternoon," she said, referring to Monday's warmer weather. “There's still a lot of work to be done. We're still trimming to get trees off the lines."

Even main roads, such as Route 31 going to Holden, were down to a single lane of traffic yesterday afternoon, as crews in utility trucks and cherry pickers removed timber from wires. The woods, which usually show a blend of brown and gray in the winter, looked like an impressionistic landscape scene, with vertical accents of white where trees had broken off, revealing the wood inside.

At one intersection fallen limbs and branches formed a natural frame around a wooden box sectioned into compartments holding split wood, advertised at $5 a box.

Ms. Dillman, who was not able to leave the office to get lunch yesterday, ate chicken soup from a Styrofoam cup delivered by Michael J. Benoit, chairman of the town's Municipal Light Board, as she spoke with a reporter.

Power crews were looking at service connections on homes to see if they were damaged, and advising homeowners if they needed to get their own electricians to make repairs before service is turned back on.

“It's all about the safety," she said.

“For a few days, everything was de-energized," she said of the wires that lay about the streets and yards. People were driving over them without knowing if they were energized or not.

“Now, they've got to pay attention. I've seen some people up on aluminum ladders leaning against their home services."

As Ms. Dillman briefed a reporter, other office workers stopped in with advisories and requests for help from residents. One man who was about to move back into his house with his family and sick baby had a question about the connection to his home.

“Make sure he knows that's energized," she said to the office worker. “We had one mother in labor the other day," she added to a reporter.

Asked how residents are dealing with the ordeal, she thought for a moment.

“We have the best and the worst" of customers, she said. “Some are coming in with tears in their eyes. They're stressed out. Some of them I know personally. Some want us to go over and remove a tree limb, and they keep coming back. They say it will only take two minutes, but it won't. I'll have to pull a crew off something else.

“It's very hard. I can't listen to every individual story. I don't have Internet, so I can't post anything. With some I've had to tell them that I'm trying to get things done, and they're burning my time.

“I have to be direct, but they think I'm rude."

She said that some residents have gotten by with portable generators, but even that has had an unintended down side.

“There are some running their Christmas lights with generators," she said.

“When someone who's been without power sees Christmas lights on a generator, it kind of rubs it in."

She said managers of other municipal power companies have been supportive of each other. Even the department's equipment supplier was available on Sunday with wire and electrical parts needed to restore power, she said.

Mr. Benoit of the light board, said the municipal utility workers had some sleepless night early on in the event.

"Last night it wasn't safe for crews to be out in the high winds," he said. "I want to thank the crews and municipal aid crews, and the people opening roads so that we can restore power," he said.

David F. Tuohey, corporate communications manager for the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., which supplies electric power to municipal power companies, like Paxton's, said municipal departments and the utility companies help each other whenever possible.

"There is a program in place, a mutual aid program, that is activated in a crisis like this," he said. "There were some municipal utilities that weren't impacted that have made their crews available.

"Everybody bands together in times of crisis. Electrical service is vital, and can be life and death. I think there's a spirit of teamwork and mutual interest in times like this. It rises above territorial boundaries, and they find a way to restore power to people."

Asked how she has held up with the Herculean task amid endless complaints and requests for help, Ms. Dillman said she copes.

"I have an extraordinary sense of humor," she said. "You can ask anyone in here."

Bob Kievra and Lisa Welsh of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report