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National Grid’s town liaisons were also in dark, officials say

Some towns along Interstate 495 were fuming again over what local officials contended was a subpar response by power company National Grid, after super storm Sandy knocked out power to thousands of homes and business in the area.

Franklin and Westborough officials had the same ax to grind last week, complaining of poor communication and a sluggish response by National Grid representatives in the hours after the storm.

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“The liaison is not able to get any answers from this company,” said Jeffrey Nutting, Franklin’s town administrator, late Tuesday afternoon. “I have had my state senator’s chief of staff for five hours at our fire station trying to get answers.”

At the height of the massive storm Monday evening, nearly 237,000 National Grid customers in the state were without electricity. State officials said the utility had restored power to nearly three-quarters of its customers within 36 hours of the peak outages, compared with 57 percent after Hurricane Irene in August of last year and 45 percent after last October’s surprise snowstorm. By early Friday afternoon, fewer than 700 remained without power.

Both Franklin and Westborough also suffered major outages during last year’s two big weather events. The disruptions in service were exacerbated by what officials contend was a dearth of information coming from the power company on recovery efforts.

Afterward, National Grid met with officials in Franklin and pledged to do a better job keeping them in the loop about the status of repairs during major outages, Nutting recalled.

But by Tuesday afternoon, a day after Sandy struck, Nutting said, his hopes for a major improvement had been dashed.

Franklin town administrator

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“After several meetings, they assured us things would work,” Nutting said of utility officials. “We had great expectations that have fallen completely apart.”

Jim Malloy, Westborough’s town administrator, offered a similar assessment last week.

“I don’t think there has been any improvement,” he said.

Franklin still had a third of its households and businesses without power late Tuesday afternoon, while Westborough hit its peak outage a few hours earlier, with about 20 percent of the town’s 7,849 homes and businesses without electricity, local officials said.

When Nutting was interviewed Tuesday afternoon, he said he had yet to see a repair crew. “It is 24 hours and they still can’t tell us when a truck is coming to town,” he said.

For his part, Malloy said he had spent a good part of Tuesday morning driving around Westborough and spotted only a single truck. Adding to his confusion, he said, he was told by the utility that it had sent out 13 trucks to a four-town area that included his community.

Deborah Drew, a spokeswoman for National Grid, said several trucks were in the area Tuesday, but she could not say whether any had made it to Franklin and Westborough.

“On Tuesday we were focused on damage assessment, emergency work, and transmission line repair,” Drew wrote in an e-mail. “The damage assessment is key . . . this means determining where the trucks and the crews are to go.”

But as big a problem was the lack of communication, according to local officials, who said National Grid’s new policy of assigning each town an employee liaison failed to achieve any practical results.

Both the Franklin and Westborough administrators said the National Grid liaisons were in the dark about repair efforts, and could not get additional information from the company.

John Coderre, town administrator in Northborough, offered a similar assessment.

Northborough was even harder hit by last week’s storm, with 85 to 90 percent of the town’s 6,000 homes and businesses losing power after a tree came crashing down Monday afternoon on power lines leading to a substation, he said.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, power was restored to all but 600 or so local customers after National Grid repaired the station, according to Coderre.

But in the intervening 24 hours, Coderre said, he had found himself in the dark about the status of the repair process, and how long Northborough would be without power.

He watched in frustration as rumors spread on Facebook and local websites that the power could be out for a week.

It was not until the lights went back on Tuesday afternoon that Coderre discovered National Grid had managed to make significant progress.

“We did have a liaison — he had very little information to share with us,” Coderre noted. “It was very difficult to get any meaningful information out of National Grid.”

Utility spokeswoman Drew acknowledged there are still “bugs” to work out with the community liaison program, but said the feedback from local officials has been positive.

E-mail Scott Van Voorhis at ­sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.
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