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For cleanup crews, long days, little sleep

Utility repair teams work street by street to clear trees, restore service

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By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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BURLINGTON - By the time the two NStar trucks rumbled down Chestnut Street here yesterday morning, the sky was bright blue, cloudless. But the signs of Tropical Storm Irene were all around.

On the street, a once towering walnut tree had been sawn into eight-foot logs; branches and leaves still littered the road. Also on the street: two shredded electric wires. A third wire dangled ominously from a broken street light.

Power had been off in the neighborhood since the tree snapped during the height of the storm on Sunday, bringing down three main power lines and plunging 25 to 35 homes into darkness.

The NStar crew, four men early in their third 18-hour day in a row, jumped out of their trucks and began assessing the situation. Jack McManus, the crew’s senior supervisor, studied a diagram of the neighborhood’s electrical grid.

“Trees,’’ he said to no one in particular, “the root of all evil.’’

As Irene exited Massachusetts Sunday night, NStar marshaled hundreds of repair crews like this one, to restore service to an estimated 250,000 of its customers. By yesterday afternoon, working street by street, and sometimes house by house, they had reduced that number to 60,000. National Grid, which had 500,000 Massachusetts customers without electricity at the storm’s peak, was down to 152,000 customers without power yesterday afternoon.

Yet both utilities were still guarded in their promises, telling customers that in many cases, power would not be restored until possibly the weekend, highlighting how agonizingly slow the restoration process can be.

Yesterday, this NStar operations crew was one of 521 the utility had working to restore power in the state. An additional 118 tree crews were also out, clearing trees and tangled limbs ahead of the electric workers. National Grid reported yesterday that more than 3,500 employees in New England were “engaged in service restoration.’’

National Grid has also taken its restoration to the sky, conducting daily helicopter surveillance of its transmission lines. Yesterday, Peter Flynn, president of transmission for National Grid New England, took a flight along the North River on the Massachusetts-Vermont border.

“These lines are so remote that a helicopter is the most efficient way to go,’’ Flynn said, “and in fact, we discovered some significant damage to the transmission towers from flooding.’’

On the ground, McManus’s NStar crew launched its day from the company’s Waltham service facility. After a general briefing around 6:30 a.m., the crew got its marching orders - a list of five locations to check out in Burlington.

The first stop was the back of a shopping center on Cambridge Street, where an elm tree had knocked over a utility pole, pinning electrical wires to the ground. Roughly a dozen stores, from a Roche Bros. supermarket to a Panera Bread cafe, were without power.

The crew parked their two trucks on either side of the downed pole. Two members, Doug Hernon and Joe Ronan, then carefully maneuvered their buckets above the downed lines, hoisted the wires off the ground, and fastened them to a nearby oak tree. As they finished, after about an hour, a pair of Verizon trucks arrived, ready to replace the pole. Later, the NStar crew would circle back and move the wires from the tree to the pole.

Then it was on to Chestnut Street, where the arrival of the NStar trucks did not go unheralded. Just minutes after they turned off their engines, a barefoot woman, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, came halfway down her driveway and cheered, clapping her hands over her head, then raising her arms in a Tom Brady-like victory signal.

Hernon and Ronan parked their trucks under a pole and began replacing insulators and restringing wires. From the ground, crew member Bob Kelland prepared new wires and insulators and tossed them up to Hernon and Ronan in the buckets.

“Between the three of us, we probably have around 60 years of experience,’’ said Kelland, “so we work pretty well together.’’

Still, a pair of NStar trucks with blinking yellow lights, surrounded by orange cones, is an almost magnetic invitation to distraction.

On Chestnut Street, residents came over to ask when power would come back on. A Burlington Department of Public Works employee stopped by to tell the crew about two downed wires nearby, including one where frustrated residents had simply put plywood over the live wire, and were driving over it. That story drew a double-take from McManus, who jotted down the address. A worker from cable provider Comcast Corp. also stopped by to compare notes, and to ask how much sleep the crew was getting (the consensus: around 4 1/2 hours a night).

The crew, which has been working 18-hour shifts with six hours off in between since Sunday, seemed unfazed by the marathon days, perhaps because the extra hours are logged as overtime.

“It’s just part of the job,’’ said McManus, who keeps a week’s worth of fresh clothes on the back seat of his truck. “It’s almost tougher on your family than you. When we’re out here, it’s like we’re on energy drinks - moving, moving, moving.’’

Added Kelland: “When I see a storm like Irene heading this way, I tell the family, ‘You’re probably not going to see me for awhile.’ ’’

After about an hour on Chestnut Street, the electric wires were once again tautly strung over the tops of the telephone poles.

“That’s going to be 25 to 35 happy customers when we turn the power on,’’ McManus said.

But the work on Chestnut Street was not done. The downed walnut tree had also snapped two secondary power lines connected to two small houses nearby.

Connecting individual homes is time-consuming, and doesn’t make much of a dent in the utility’s outage numbers. Nonetheless, the crew started the process of reattaching the lines to the two houses.

“Sometimes it takes longer to attach a single house than an entire neighborhood,’’ McManus said. “But it makes sense to do them while we’re here.’’

Ronan, a 25-year NStar veteran, said that although the crew will knock off smaller jobs in the immediate vicinity, the workers cannot be lured by residents to nearby homes that are not on their official job list. “And people beg us, believe me,’’ he said.

Some customers also discover that after their power is restored, it gets cut off again. That can happen when a utility makes a temporary fix, then later cuts off power to work on a more permanent connection.

By mid-morning, the NStar crew had restored power to a small shopping center, a neighborhood, and two individual houses. McManus seemed pleased with the crew’s progress.

“It’s one job at a time, then another job, then another job, until around midnight,’’ he said. “Then five hours sleep. Then we do it again tomorrow.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.