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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


By Matthew Bruun and Aaron Nicodemus TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

Brian Donelan, right, thanks a line crew from Tennessee working on his street, Institute Road, in West Fitchburg today. Mr. Donelan is on his 12th day without power. (T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR)

wt_122308-2 Reporters, Fitchburg residents and others listen last night to George Gantz, right, senior vice president of Unitil.

wt_122308-3 Frantz and Tishawna Morel describe life with no power after 11 days before the start of last night's press conference with Fitchburg Mayor Lisa A. Wong.

FITCHBURG— Unitil, the utility company already under fire for leaving many customers without power for going on two weeks after an ice storm, was dealt another blow yesterday when the latest snow damaged a transmission line, knocking out 6,600 customers whose service already had been restored.

Unitil Senior Vice President George Gantz said at a news conference yesterday those customers were expected to be back online by late last night, and the remainder of the city's 1,420 powerless customers by today, along with hundreds more in Lunenburg and Townsend.

Unitil announced this morning that it is at least halfway toward reaching its goal of restoring power to the Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend and Ashby customers who have been in the dark for nearly two weeks.

The morning update showed that 787 Fitchburg residents remained without power, down from 1,420 last night. Including the Fitchburg residents, 1,173 customers are powerless: 59 in Lunenburg, 35 in Townsend and 292 in Ashby. About twice as many were in the dark yesterday.

Unitil noted on its Web site this morning that one circuit in southwest Ashby was badly damaged and may not be repaired today.

Frustration with Unitil's response to the storm reached as high as Gov. Deval L. Patrick's office — which wants an investigation from the Department of Public Utilities — and extended to residents coping with day-upon-day without power.

The Department of Public Utilities announced today it will conduct an investigation into efforts by the state's electric utilities to restore full power after the ice storm. The investigation is being launched in response to Gov. Patrick's request and concerns expressed by Attorney General Martha Coakley and area legislators over the Fitchburg residents who have been without power for 11 days. The DPU's inquiry will cover what companies did to prepare for the ice storm and their implementation of emergency storm plans.

"The first order of business is for utilities to restore power to all of their customers," DPU Chairman Paul Hibbard said. "Once that is complete, the DPU will take an in-depth look at utilities' performance during the storm and in the aftermath, and consider what they could - and perhaps should - have done better to avoid prolonged power outages in some parts of the Commonwealth."

"It's horrible," said Frantz Morel, whose Hazel Street home has been without electricity for 11 days.

"I hope we get someone else," added Tishawna Morel, his wife. "I don't even want Unitil anymore."

The Morels have lived in hotels and with family members since the storm.

April Stuart expects to give birth in two weeks and is worried her house on Frankfort Street won't have electricity by the time she delivers.

"It's going to be a horrible Christmas this year," she said.

After their Richardson Drive home lost power, Robert and Marlene Carbone spent four nights at the city's storm shelter before spending $300 on hotel rooms. The only good thing that came out of the experience was they made new friends at the shelter, including volunteer Diana Metivier, who was with them yesterday afternoon.

The Carbones want the city to sever ties with Unitil.

"They're terrible," Mr. Carbone said.

"The worst," his wife added.

Mr. Gantz said he understood the frustration but maintained the company has done the best it could in light of unprecedented damage.

"This was an event, from our standpoint, of unbelievable proportions," Mr. Gantz said yesterday. "The repairs were more difficult and more complicated than we expected."

The company normally has seven crews stationed in the city and called in outside help as soon as the scope of the damage was clear on Dec. 12, Mr. Gantz said. But utility crews were busy with their own service areas and help wasn't available for Unitil until over the weekend. On Saturday, the governor asked other utility companies to send available crews to Unitil's service area.

By yesterday afternoon, an estimated 325 utility and tree crews were in the company's North Central Massachusetts territory. Mr. Gantz said repairs would be "substantially complete" in Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Townsend today, with the remaining outages in Ashby repaired soon.

"My opinion is: We deployed our resources effectively, we did everything we could," he said. "We are completing this restoration as fast as possible."

Minutes earlier, Mayor Lisa A. Wong noted a significant number of households had been without power for 11 days.

"We find the situation is absolutely unacceptable," she said.

State Rep. Stephen L. DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, also had pressed for an inquiry by the DPU. "If nothing else, we're going to make assurances this doesn't happen again."

"We'll ask all the difficult questions as times goes on," added state Sen.-elect Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster.

National Grid reported that power had been restored to the last of its customers yesterday, and the utility sent more than 100 of its crews into Fitchburg and surrounding towns to restore power to Unitil customers.

Other municipal electric departments reported significant progress in restoring power to customers yesterday.

Paxton Municipal Light Department manager Diane K. Dillman said power to all but 22 customers had been returned by Saturday, and the final customer's power was reconnected yesterday. Now, only a few uninhabited barns and detached garages remain without power, she said.

Holden Municipal Light Department manager Brian Bullock said about 200 people in Holden remained without power yesterday, and all customers should have power by tonight.

Princeton Municipal Light began yesterday with about 26 percent of its customers without power, and crews labored throughout the day to reconnect the remaining customers. A news release from the department yesterday predicted that all power lines would be restored by the end of the day, but individual houses might remain without power because of "individual issues at the home."

In Ashburnham, the number of customers without power was reduced from 80 over the weekend to about 12 yesterday, according to Ashburnham Municipal Light Department General Manager Stanley W. Herriott. He expected the final customers would have power today.

"It's been frustrating for people who are on the end of the line," Mr. Herriott said yesterday. "We still have a lot of repair work to do, but the goal was to get people back up, and we're close to that."

Progress had also been made to restore cable television. Charter Communications construction and technical crews restored cable service to most of Barre yesterday, and "significant progress" was made in restoring downed lines in West Boylston, Dunstable, Groton, Harvard, Berlin and Pepperell. These towns are expected to be completed today.

In a news release, Charter also reported progress in Holden and Worcester. There were 100 customers in Holden without cable after yesterday's efforts, and the entire town should be repaired today. Worcester's several hundred cable outages should be repaired by tomorrow, Charter announced.

Charter crews will also be concentrating today on restoring downed lines in Rutland, Hubbardston, Paxton, Oakham, Spencer and Hollis, N.H.

The Red Cross has hosted nearly 5,000 people at its regional shelter in Fitchburg since the Dec. 11 ice storm, and has provided over 12,000 meals and snacks. Approximately 60 people remained in the shelter on Sunday evening, the Red Cross said.

"Our volunteers remain committed to this operation until the last of our clients' needs have been met," said Nicole Valentine, director of emergency services and public affairs for the American Red Cross of Central Massachusetts. "We are truly grateful to all of our volunteers who have spent countless hours staffing shelters and providing warm meals to their neighbors in need."

At the Fitchburg-area Salvation Army, donations are down almost $20,000 compared with last year. Capt. Brian Peabody attributed the decline in collections to the weather, which limited the amount of time that volunteers could man kettles in public locations, a decline in volunteers because so many people in the area are without power "and dealing with their own issues," he said, and the overall poor economy.

"We've given out over 500 food baskets, and we're out of food," he said. "We could serve another 500 families if we had food to give them."

Capt. Peabody said the Salvation Army, which serves Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Leominster, may have to bring out the kettles next spring in an attempt to bridge the gap in fundraising.

"We're losing money but we're also spending more," he said. "Our goal is to not cut any services."