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Discontent grows as thousands wait for power

Craig Hallstrom, right, NStar president, and Tom May, CEO of parent company Northeast Utilities, met with reporters in Marshfield to discuss power outages.

Barry Chin/Globe staff

Craig Hallstrom, right, NStar president, and Tom May, CEO of parent company Northeast Utilities, met with reporters in Marshfield to discuss power outages.

MARSHFIELD — Frustrations started to show Monday as thousands of residents went another cold day without electricity and heat following this weekend’s snowstorm, while government officials criticized NStar for not being more responsive to customers’ need to know when power would be restored.

“They’re not sharing the information they have about what their plans are, what their estimates are,” said US Representative William R. Keating, who represents many communities still in the dark and whose own home in Bourne was without power. “I’ve met with numerous people who said, ‘I just want to know how long it’s going to be so I can make a decision.’ ”

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Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, said NStar has responded in force to her community, also hard hit by the storm, with trucks and crews from as far away as Quebec and Oklahoma. But, like Keating, she said communication with residents about when their power might be restored has been lacking.

“That’s where the frustration comes from,” said Murray, whose power came back only late Monday afternoon. “There has to be a better communication system. It doesn’t seem to be synching.”

NStar said just over 44,000 customers were still without power as of 10 p.m. Monday, down from a peak of about 250,000. National Grid reported about 12,000 customers still without power, down from a peak of 170,000. National Grid said it will restore power to all customers by Tuesday; NStar said it will need until Thursday.

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Standing in the rain on a residential street here Monday evening, surrounded by downed power lines, Northeast Utilities chief executive Thomas J. May said he understood the frustration since NStar’s restoration efforts have been hampered by the weather. Still, he said, the Boston utility’s overall progress has been a success story, thanks in part to its merger last year with Northeast Utilities of Hartford.

That partnership, May said, has allowed NStar to call on Northeast crews from Connecticut, Western Massachusetts Electric Co., and Public Service of New Hampshire.

“We have no shortage,” May said. “They’re here helping us out.”

But Attorney General Martha Coakley, who recommended heavy fines against the utilities after what officials called a poor response to storms in 2011, said May was premature to describe any part of NStar’s response as a success with so many homes still without power.

“Right now, the utilities must be focused on getting power returned,” she said in a statement. “Then we are going to carefully look at whether progress has been made and if they have lived up to their obligations to ratepayers.”

Governor Deval Patrick, noting that many people are living in unheated and unlit homes, displaced to shelters, or bunking down with friends and family, urged the utilities to move as quickly as a possible.

“There are lots of questions people have about the speed of the restoration,” he said while visiting a shelter here with Keating Monday morning. “Patience is going to start to wear thin for everybody if the utilities don’t continue to make significant progress.”

NStar and National Grid have thousands of crews — many pulled in from out-of-state — working on the outages, which were concentrated on the South Shore and Cape Cod. Fallen wires tangled in trees and dense snow made it difficult for crews to reach equipment in need of repair, officials from both utilities said.

May said the weather conditions, including Monday’s rain, presented a greater challenge for crews than they faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the fall.

Christine McCormack of Cohasset said she and her neighbors just know they’re going to be without power for “quite a while” longer. Several trees, transformers, and utility poles came down on their dead-end street, knocking out power Friday around 8 p.m.

“There was nothing they could do,” she said of her utility, National Grid. “The roads were so impassable.”

But Tom McManus of Wareham was not as pleased with NStar.

He said he’d had little contact with NStar after reporting that his house lost power at about 8:30 p.m. Friday. His family kept warm by a gas fireplace, read the newspaper with headlamps, and burned through about a quarter-tank of gas as they charged electronics in their cars through Monday morning.

“We have not heard one word from NStar,” he said shortly before noon Monday, even “a simple phone call to say we are working in your area.”

A few minutes later, however, the lights flickered on.

Despite such criticism, May defended NStar. Responding specifically to Keating’s comments about the utility’s response, May said: “If Congressman Keating talks to the townsfolk, he’ll find out we’ve got people in every one of these towns.”

Keating fired back: “It’s not just enough to put someone there. You have to allow them to share the information they have.”

Globe reporter Noah Bierman contributed to this report. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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