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Thursday, December 18, 2008

‘Ice rain hell’ Bringing electrical system completely back to normal could take a year


A Reading Municipal Light Department line crew repairs primary high-voltage lines on Lakeshore Drive in Ashburnham yesterday. The crew was helping the Ashburnham Municipal Lighting Plant in its power restoration effort. Both are municipally owned power companies and members of the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. (T&G Staff Photos / RICK CINCLAIR)

The ice storm began quietly and although freezing rain fell through the day Thursday, it wasn't until around 3 a.m. Friday that Ashburnham Municipal Lighting Plant Manager Stanley W. Herriott realized he was seeing something of historic proportions.

"It was an ice rain hell coming down,” he said, describing a storm that would demolish the power system in his town and in large sections of four states.

Sitting in his office, a thousand-yard stare on his face from exhaustion, Mr. Herriott said that at one point early on in the storm, although most of the town was without electricity, Ashburnham had to pull its crews off the roads. It was just too dangerous. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of trees and large branches raining down on the roads and utility lines.

"They were falling from 30 feet off the roads," he said. "When they get that momentum, everything goes down."

Since the storm hit, Mr. Herriott, his employees and mutual aid line crews have been working 6 a.m. to midnight every day. As quickly as possible, they are trying to rebuild a power system that was created in the town over the past 100 years. In many cases it is a quick fix, tying broken poles up with rope or attaching lines. It is a hazard, but at this point, with the magnitude of the damage, he said it is a calculated risk.

"We're doing everything we can to get people's power on," he said.

Starting with more than 3,000 customers in the dark, the municipal power company said the number of customers without power was below 1,000 yesterday.But Mr. Herriott said he does not expect everyone's power to be restored by emergency repairs by Christmas. And bringing the system back to normal operations will likely take a year. Municipal power companies faced special problems in dealing with the historic storm, especially in finding manpower. There are 10 municipal power companies in Central Massachusetts and all are dealing with outages. These companies belong to the Ludlow-based Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., an agency that provides them power supply and related services.Mr. Herriott said he normally has enough men for two line crews.

"That's normally enough," he said, as he worked to equip and send out the 16 power line and two cutting crews working in Ashburnham to restore power.

Mr. Herriott, who is chairman of the board of MMWEC, said one of the challenges of municipal power companies is they do not have the ability to call in crews from around the country. He said National Grid has 2,000 crews working in Central and Western Massachusetts, from as far away as Ohio.

Ashburnham and other municipal power companies have the ability to call in extra help but from a smaller pool. Within 48 hours of the start of the storm, Mr. Herriott said, line crews were arriving in Ashburnham from other utilities in the Northeast Public Power Association.

The big utilities are able to bring in crews from around the country, and Mr. Herriott said many of the tree-cutting crews were already committed, but Ashburnham was able to get two crews just cutting trees.

Yesterday, the crews were sent out between 6 and 9 a.m. from the lighting plant's offices on Williams Road to continue repairing the many downed power lines in town. Mr. Herriott said his office is starting to hear complaints from some residents and he understands their frustration with the outages, into a seventh day in many cases. One of the problems, he said, was that trees had to be cut before the linemen could go in and do their work.

Mr. Herriott said his office has also received positive feedback. "We've had people come out of their houses and feed the crews," he said.

One crew from Reading was treated on Tuesday to a lunch of deep-fried boar and venison cooked by resident Howard Bilheimer on Lake Road. Mr. Bilheimer was out of power, but able to cook with propane.

"He fed us all lunch after we restored his power and gave us a deep-fried meal," said Chuck Helmka, a lineman for the Reading Municipal Light Department, another member of MMWEC.

Mr. Helmka said Mr. Bilheimer and his wife came back out at 9:30 p.m. and gave them clam chowder, rolls, dessert and coffee.

"I just want that guy to know we appreciate guys like him," he said.

John Kilgore Jr., manager of the Sterling Municipal Light Department, said his town has also had to make extensive repairs to its system, but he has a dozen crews from around the state and Connecticut helping his men with the work. He said that although municipals draw from their smaller pool of light companies for mutual aid, they have more crews per person than the larger utilities.

Mr. Kilgore said his company was able to bring in all the supplies it needed by Saturday. It has managed to reduce the number of customers without power from 3,600 to less than 400.

But Mr. Kilgore said he sympathizes with customers still out of power. He said he lives in another storm-affected community and was without power for six days. He said he came to Sterling in 1991; since then the entire system had been rewired.

"Our power system was devastated. We're trying to restring all that, replacing poles and transformers," he said.

Mr. Kilgore said that since last Thursday his crews have been at work 24 hours a day.
"This is a storm, unfortunately, no one wants to remember," he said.

Contact George Barnes by e-mail at