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Utilities geared up to tackle outages

Thousands of utility workers across Massachusetts mobilized for what the electric companies assume will be widespread and perhaps prolonged power outages caused by the powerful blizzard that barreled into the region Monday.

Utilities weren’t just bracing for record amounts of snow that could snap tree branches and down power lines. They were also worrying that high winds could delay the repairs. Crews in hydraulic buckets can’t work in winds above 40 miles per hour; winds exceeding 50 miles per hour are predicted during the worst of the storm Tuesday.

“We’re expecting this will be, in total, a multiday restoration event,” said Michael Durand, a spokesman for Northeast Utilities, which owns NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. NStar has about 1.1 million customers in the state; Western Massachusetts Electric has about 200,000.


NStar and National Grid, the state’s other major utilities, said they were well prepared for the storm, which was predicted to continue into early Wednesday and dump as much as 3 feet of snow. Besides deploying hundreds of utility crews at strategic staging areas across the state, National Grid and NStar have contracted with private companies to provide hundreds of additional repair crews in coming days.

“It’s essentially all hands on deck,” said Jake Navarro, a spokesman for National Grid, which has 1.3 million customers in Massachusetts.

Crews from as far away as the Midwest may be called in, he said. Durand said NStar’s backup crews come from as far away as Tennessee.

The expected mega-blizzard could be a big test for utilities that have been slapped with record fines for their past performance during both tropical and winter storms. In 2012, Massachusetts’ attorney general recommended a combined $30 million in fines against National Grid, NStar, and Massachusetts Electric Co. for allegedly inadequate responses to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and during a major early-season snowstorm in October 2011. The Department of Public Utilities ultimately ordered them to pay a record $24 million in fines.


Among other criticisms, the utilities were accused of failing to communicate with customers and municipalities, provide timely damage assessments, properly staff for the emergency events, and respond to public safety calls about downed wires.

Utilities say they’ve learned from their mistakes.

Truck mechanics, IT specialists, phone-bank employees, and others have been mobilized to support the repair crews, company officials said.

After pre-storm preparations, utility crews were expected to return late Monday night to staging areas, where officials have hauled out cots and air mattresses for workers to rest after long shifts. Food has also been stockpiled.

Both National Grid and NStar say they have rented an unspecified number of hotel rooms for employees so they can be near the staging areas.

“Many of the times our members will leave homes, with their wives and children behind, that also don’t have power — all to help restore power for other people,” said Dan Hurley, president of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents 4,000 National Grid and NStar workers. “They’re really proud of their work.”

Few of today’s utility workers witnessed the historic Blizzard of 1978, when the region was virtually shut down. But veteran crew members have seen enough big storms over the years to give some advice, Hurley said.

“They’ll tell the younger ones, ‘Pace yourself and be careful. Wear multilayers of clothes and bring backup clothes,’” he said. “They all know this is probably going to be a multiday event. This is big.”


Utilities are urging customers to contact them if they lose power. “We really do encourage people to call us,” said Jake Navarro, a National Grid spokesman. “We don’t always know where outages are until people call us.”

■  National Grid: 1-800-465-1212. The utility is also providing information at www.nationalgridusa.com/outagecentral and via its
mobile apps, available at the iPhone and Android app stores.

■  NStar: 1-800-592-2000. Also, NStar’s website, www.nstar.com,
has an “outage reporting form” and it will post maps detailing where power has been lost and, if possible, times when power might be restored. Customers can also sign up for text alerts on the website.

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.