Governor Deval Patrick and top state officials today said they have made it clear to the leaders of the state’s utility companies that they must be ready to deal with Hurricane Sandy -- or face financial consequences once the storm fades into memory.
Speaking to reporters at a State House press conference, Patrick and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said the poor response to prior storms by some utilities should be a thing of the past.
Sullivan said state law has changed to toughen financial sanctions on utilities for failing to adequately respond to storms that companies had advance notice were heading to their service areas.
“It it very clear to all of the utilities that they are under strict scrutiny on their response to this particular storm,’’ said Sullivan. “We are expecting that the level of services will be much higher.’’
This summer, Attorney General Martha Coakley urged the state Department of Public Utilities to fine National Grid $16 million for its response to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and to an October 2011 snowstorm. She urged that NStar be fined $9.7 million for its response to the two storms.
Patrick said state emergency agencies have been put on alert, and officials also said municipal emergency management plans should be triggered early next week, when Hurricane Sandy is expected to arrive. The governor and his aides urged the public to prepare their cars, homes, and pets before Sandy’s arrival.
The governor said he is cancelling a campaign trip on behalf of President Obama that he was supposed to have taken Sunday. He will wait for the storm to arrive before deciding if he will hit the campaign trial Wednesday and Thursday on behalf of his fellow Democrat.
In his view, the governor said utility customers have understood that storm damage takes time to fix, but became frustrated when information provided by utilities proved inaccurate or out of date. In order to speed restoration of services, Patrick said he wants tree trimming crews paired with line repair crews once utilities start repairing damage.
“It’s the weather. It’s Mother Nature, so it’s not entirely predictable,’’ Patrick said. “But the things that we’ve observed from the last two storms should be lessons that we are planning against. And I think that all of the utilities have certainly heard that, and are responding to us.’’
At a press conference at one of its major facilities in Northbridge today, National Grid officials said they have learned from the past, and are ready to confront Sandy.
“In 2011, we really heard the frustration from our customers, from both Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, and we learned a lot of lessons from that,” said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid’s Massachusetts operations. “We didn’t meet their expectations and we didn’t meet our own expectations, so we’re going to prove this time that we are completely prepared and will meet all expectations.”
A company liaison will be placed in each affected community to act as a conduit of information to municipal authorities and residents. The “wires down” process, damage assessment, and communication with cities, towns, and customers has improved, Reed said.
“They will be mano-a-mano right there in the town,” Reed said. “We’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.’’
About 5,000 National Grid employees and contractors will be responding to the storm, and there will be as many as nine staging areas across New England from which supplies and employees will be dispatched. More than 1,000 outside contractors are on their way to the region to assist. Call centers will be open around-the-clock to answer customer concerns.
Tim Horne, the president of National Grid’s Rhode Island operations, said workers will get to power outages as soon as possible, but the company will not dispatch them until conditions are safe, which translates into winds under 50 miles per hour.