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Utilities’ storm response seen as improved

Utility workers from National Grid and from South Carolina discussed power restoration plans while meeting at the Hanover Mall last Sunday.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Utility workers from National Grid and from South Carolina discussed power restoration plans while meeting at the Hanover Mall last Sunday.

Utilities’ handling of the hundreds of thousands of outages caused by the winter storm that battered Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod last weekend was largely improved compared with other recent storms that caused widespread power losses and provoked denunciation from government officials and irate customers, according to many state and local officials.

Together, NStar and
National Grid mustered more than 3,000 crews to replace fallen utility poles, rehang wire cables, and repair blown transformers that left more than 600,000 customers without power because of the storm, which dumped more than 2 feet of snow in some parts of the state.

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As their crews worked, the utilities broadcast their progress, often via photos and messages posted on social media sites or sent by text to a phone. By the end of Tuesday, National Grid had returned power to all but about 35 of the 251,000 customers that lost it. NStar had the lights back by Wednesday for nearly all of its 350,000 customers left in the dark by the storm.

The blackout may have seemed interminable in those households, but utilities apparently restored electricity as fast or faster than they promised in emergency response plans filed with the state, plans based largely on standards set by the US Department of Homeland Security. While there was criticism — mostly from those who wanted quicker and more frequent updates on repairs — the preliminary consensus is that the utilities seemed to have learned from shortcomings in past storms.

The state recently fined NStar and National Grid a combined $22.8 million for what officials called an inadequate performance in 2011 following Tropical Storm Irene and a Halloween snowstorm commonly referred to as “Snowtober.” Nearly 763,000 lost power during the latter storm, with some outages lasting more than a week; during Irene, more than 1 million lost power, with outages lasting about a week.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who recommended the stiff fines for the utilities, said Friday that her office has heard anecdotal evidence that the utilities had more “boots on the ground” and that there was improved communication with customers and communities. But she said she would reserve judgment for a formal review by her office and state regulators after the utilities file storm response reports in about a month.

“We think they had a long way to go [from 2011] to get where they should be,” Coakley said. “Whether this response was good enough or adequate, we’ll wait until that review to give them a final grade.”

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Just how well the state’s investor-owned utilities respond to major storms has come under scrutiny since 2008, when a December ice storm left all of Unitil’s 28,500 customers in the Fitchburg and Lunenburg area without power — some for up to two weeks. Legislation that followed established fines for poor storm response, and required power companies to file emergency response plans with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities every year.

A review by the Globe of 1,500 pages of documents — including the utilities’ emergency plans, final reports on past storms, and progress reports filed throughout this storm — show that National Grid and NStar met or exceeded their own benchmarks for handling widespread outages.

Both utilities classified the storm as a “catastrophic event,” their highest designation, meaning that each utility expected more than 100,000 customers without power, with many outages likely to last three days or more. To handle such damage, National Grid estimated it needs to bring in at least 1,000 crews, while NStar’s emergency plan shows it generally needs more than 350 crews.

For last week’s storm, NStar had roughly 1,600 crews working, while National Grid had nearly 1,800 crews, according to the utilities.

“Communications between the utilities, us, and customers, and cities and towns is orders of magnitude better than it was five years ago,” said Ann Berwick, chairwoman of the state Department of Public Utilities, which will review the utilities’ response in the coming months.

Of course, every storm is different. Irene, for example, caused widespread destruction from the Carolinas into New England, so many of the out-of-state utilities that NStar and National Grid normally depend on for extra help needed to keep crews at home. That left the Massachusetts utilities largely on their own to deal with damage spread across their entire service territories.

The October snowstorm created a similar situation, as it dropped heavy, wet snow on much of the East Coast at a time when leaves were still on trees. The weight sent limbs crashing on power lines, creating widespread outages across several states.

Last week’s destruction was concentrated on the South Shore and Cape Cod, where the storm left mountains of snow on streets blocking access to utility equipment.

Marcy Reed, National Grid’s president in Massachusetts, said the utility was able to respond more quickly to outages because it revised the way it does damage assessment. Instead of trying to identify all problems before starting to restore power, as it largely did in the past, the company now does a “quick run-by” to locate the biggest problems, and starts repairing them while a more comprehensive assessment is completed. The change allowed National Grid to release its first estimates of when power would be restored to communities by Saturday evening, just hours after the storm ended.

NStar said it conducted its damage assessment in much the same way, but the company was more conservative in releasing estimates of when power would be restored.

“At one point it was snowing 4 inches an hour,” said Craig Hallstrom, NStar Electric president. “Before I can start to put out an estimate restoration time I have to know what’s broken [and] I can’t go look until it stops snowing.”

NStar didn’t provide its first overall estimate until Sunday — a day after National Grid. This delay sparked criticism of NStar by some government officials and customers. Falmouth resident Eric Wheeler said via e-mail that he was disappointed with NStar’s performance, despite communicating with company representatives by phone, Twitter, and Facebook.

“Every communication was irritating because I could never learn what the specific nature of my outage was, what had been done, what needed to be done, and when it was expected to be done,” said Wheeler, whose lost power at 11 p.m. Friday. His family used the fireplace to stay warm as the temperature inside dropped as low as 38 degrees.

Power returned to Wheeler’s household on Wednesday at about 2 p.m.

“I have nothing but praise for the call center employees and field workers,” Wheeler said, “but the company needs to figure out a better way to get information to their customers.”

In some of the hardest hit cities and towns, however, officials praised the utilities for their increased presence in their communities, including assigning liaisons to help keep emergency officials up-to-date.

“Prehurricane Sandy [in October], or the storms prior to that, we had the perception of no communication with NStar,” said Mashpee Fire Chief George Baker. During last week’s storm, he said, “We had someone all the time.”

At its height, the storm knocked out power for 98 percent of the town.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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