After Sandy, Town Officials Eye Utilities' Response

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A utility crewmember works to restore power in Andover on Tuesday, following Sandy. (Elise Amendola/AP)
A utility crewmember works to restore power in Andover on Tuesday. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Nearly 90,000 Massachusetts customers were still without power early Wednesday afternoon, following Sandy. (Outages: NStarNational Grid, UnitilWMECO). That's down from almost 400,000 outages at the height of the superstorm Monday.

Sandy was supposed to be a demonstration of an improved response from the state's utilities, but so far it appears that reaction to the utilities' power restoration efforts is mixed.

On Tuesday in a field near the Wachusett Aqueduct on Bartlett Street in Northborough, Sandy's wrath was evident. There was a massive tree, more than three feet in diameter, that downed a utility pole with the top snapped off nearby. And there were wires all over the field.

"We experienced some gusts of wind here that were 61 mph — pretty unprecedented," said Northborough Fire Chief David Durgin. He said those winds knocked trees onto two main feeder lines, and about 80 percent of the town's 14,000 residents lost power. As of Tuesday afternoon, that number still hadn't changed.

"When these feeder lines are down this is a complex issue," he said. "This is another whole division that handles this, not the guys in the bucket trucks. It's high, high voltage, dangerous stuff to work with. I understand that. We just need better communication."

Better communication, Durgin said, because even though National Grid did provide extra crews and a liaison to work directly with the town, communication is not much better this year than it was during last year's major fall storms. And the chief is not the only one complaining.

“In my mind it’s time for change,” said Worcester City Manager Michael O'Brien. “Substantive change, honest conversations, no more bureaucracies."

O'Brien admitted he was angry. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were still some 10,000 Worcester residents without power, which O'Brien said shows that his city did not get the improved response to this storm that was promised from National Grid.

"I love the talk, I love the rhetoric, but I'll tell ya in the blood and guts trenches where I live, I'll tell you, there's been no change," he said.

The state's other major power company, NStar, is also facing criticism. Weston Town Manager Donna VanderClock told WBUR's All Things Considered that communication is a problem.

"To call NStar and not have them call you back, people designated as your contact people, I would expect those people to provide us with progress reports, what they're going to get to today, not just, 'We'll get to you eventually,' " she said. "I would expect better and more focused communication."

Both NStar and National Grid said Tuesday they have not heard any complaints. National Grid spokeswoman Charlotte McCormack said the utility will be assessing its response.

"We've worked to respond better," McCormack said. "At the end of the day, we’ll see what customers say over the next couple of days. We knew this was a challenge heading into it, but it’s a challenge that we welcomed and embraced. And we’re working as hard as we can to restore our customers’ power and to give them the service they deserve."

There are some customers — and town officials — who praise their utilities' response. By midday Tuesday all power was restored in West Bridgewater to the more than 40 percent of residents who lost it. Also getting compliments were the privately owned municipal power companies, which, like last year, seem to have more easily weathered the storm.

"We did really well, actually," said Jackie Pratt, marketing manager for the municipally owned and run Electric and Cable Co. in Shrewsbury. "We had about 550 people without power at the height of the storm and we got just about everybody back before midnight."

Pratt said at times like this, smaller is probably better.

"We have our linemen here working just within the borders of Shrewsbury," Pratt said. "They know every inch of line in town. With the investor-owned utilities, it's just a lot of ground to cover."

State officials say once all power is restored they'll review how all utility companies responded. State Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan says the state will monitor any concerns and could levy fines against any unresponsive utility.

"Across the board there seems to have been a higher level of communication," Sullivan said. "But that needs to be the case in every community and if it's not happening, that's a problem. We will address that with the same seriousness that we addressed the overall issue from the last storm."

During last year's Tropical Storm Irene, twice as many people lost power as did during Sandy. It took almost a week before all power was restored. This time, the utilities say all power could be restored by Thursday night.

This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.

This article was originally published on October 30, 2012.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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