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Utilities’ response being closely watched

Power lines were down in Scituate.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Power lines were down in Scituate.

Unlike recent storms that left damage and darkness over a wide swath of the state, the worst of this weekend’s storm was in the eastern region, slamming communities like Quincy, Fall River, and Plymouth, and leaving large numbers without power for a few more days.

More than 420,000 National Grid and NStar customers lost power at the height of the storm, which hit portions of the companies’ electric transmission systems hard and ripped lines from poles. The outages, on top of flooding and high winds in areas like Scituate, forced many into shelters as the snow piled up.

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As of 5:30 a.m., 66,046 National Grid customers and 187,542 NStar customers were still without power.

How well — and how quickly — the utilities restore power will be highly scrutinized by the state, which recently fined NStar and National Grid a combined $22.8 million for what officials called an inadequate response to outages in 2011 following Tropical Storm Irene and a Halloween snowstorm. Nearly twice as many customers lost power during those storms — 800,000 during Irene and 671,000 in the Halloween storm — but the utilities were criticized, largely for poor communication with the public and local officials.

“We feel pretty good,” Governor Deval Patrick said of utilities’ work so far. But “the recovery is what people will be focused on. They want to get back to their routines, we understand that, so we have a lot of work still to do.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who recommended heavy fines for the utilities after their previous storm responses, said she will be watching the companies’ progress.

“This is a historic storm which caused significant coastal damage and widespread power outages,” said Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer “While we recognize it will take the utilities time to fully restore power, we will be closely monitoring that response.”

In preparation for the storm, National Grid and NStar stationed hundreds of crews throughout the storm’s expected path and were bringing in more from Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.

Many residents without power tracked the storm using cellphones, logging onto social media platforms like Twitter to follow utility updates — or, in extreme cases, to get help.

Leah Coyle, her husband, and their two dogs were evacuated from the couple’s waterside Scituate home by firefighters early Saturday, after Coyle tweeted that the high tide had engulfed her mailbox and was overtaking the porch. Their power had already been out for three hours.

“Someone tweeted back and said, we heard you through the dispatcher and someone is on the way,” Coyle said. “They came in with a frontloader and knocked on our door.”

On Saturday, utility crews continued attending to emergency calls and reports of downed wires and began taking stock of damage as the storm started to clear. Still, wider restoration efforts were hampered by deep snowbanks and streets that remained blanketed in snow.

“This is going to be a long restoration effort, multi-day,” said Michael Durand, a spokesman for NStar. “Until you actually get boots on the ground and get damage [assessments] it’s really hard to say what the next step is, and the roads have really been hindering us from doing that.”

NStar had no estimate as to when power might return to the majority of its customers, while National Grid said it expects to have Brockton, Attleboro, and Quincy back online by the end of Sunday, and the Hanover area, including Cohasset, Scituate, and Norwell, powered up by the end of Tuesday.

Norfolk and Plymouth counties were among the areas in National Grid’s service territory most battered by the storm. Roughly two-thirds of the utility’s outages stemmed from the damage to the company’s transmission lines, which are the backbone of its power system, said Marcy Reed, National Grid’s Massachusetts president. Approximately 1,400 wires were down, as well.

In Fall River, where roughly half the city’s residents lost power at the storm’s peak, Tammy Farias’s home had no electricity or heat between 10 p.m. Friday and late Saturday afternoon.

With the TV out of commission and spotty cellphone reception , Farias and her family spent the day shoveling the snow around the car then moving food to the trunk to stay frozen.

When the lights flickered on just before sunset, Farias said she knew how she wanted to spend the rest of her night: “Watching TV and putting the heat on full blast.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan and Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.
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