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For some Western. Mass residents, power restoration is still days away

Posted by Rachel Roberts  November 2, 2011 11:14 PM

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West Brookfield resident recalls the historic October nor'easter with Rachel Roberts on Vimeo.

Sonia Burke’s home may be without power until Sunday or Monday, but that didn’t stop the West Brookfield resident from heading to Springfield to volunteer her time to those in need at Central High School’s temporary shelter.

“Out in the hill towns we learn to depend on each other, but in the city it’s not as close. Everybody is working or out on their own and there was probably a lot they couldn’t do [without chainsaws] either,” Burke said.

The Cedar Drive resident rose early Sunday morning to clear as much of her porch and yard area as she could before teaming up with her neighbors to clear the roadway of trees, branches and other storm debris. On Monday, Burke’s driveway was finally plowed out and she took Tuesday off as a "regrouping day" before deciding to help others in need at the shelters.

“It seems like they are doing quite well [at Central High School] and hopefully people will begin to have their power turned on and be able to go home,” Burke said on Wednesday. “The numbers are definitely going down. People are finding that their electricity is back on again and that’s really good.”

When shelter numbers reached the 400-person capacity by noon on Monday, the city began transporting overflow by van to Chicopee High School, the designated regional American Red Cross shelter. On Wednesday, the Chicopee shelter was closed, but an emergency Red Cross shelter ha since been opened at Longmeadow High School.

(See related coverage.)

Longmeadow Fire Captain Andrew Fraser said Wednesday that firefighters have responded to more than 200 storm-related calls, including emergency medical services, carbon monoxide reports and four house fires caused by fireplaces and wood stoves that people were using to stay warm without electricity.

The historic Oct. 29th nor’easter left millions of people in the dark from Maine to Maryland, including a total of about 670,000 residents in Massachusetts. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 200,000 customers statewide remained in the dark. On Wednesday, West Springfield Mayor Edward J. Gibson announced that 51 percent of the city was still without electrical service, while 31,400 customers were still without power in Springfield.

Gov. Deval Patrick has openly criticized utility companies, stating they need to step up their work pace to restore power to understandably frustrated customers.

"I realize it was an historic storm ... and that there was a tremendous amount of damage, especially in central and western Massachusetts," Patrick told reporters. "But it’s been days now. And with the number of crews that are out – you know more than ever before and the amount of preparation that went into this storm and the aftermath, and dealing with the aftermath, we ought to see, we need this done, and we need it done now."

(See related coverage.)

Brian E. Kenney, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Springfield, said 85 of his 2,067 local crew members are line workers for Western Massachusetts Electric Co., which is too small for its own staff. Line crews are required to take eight hours off every 16 hours of work to avoid overtime pay.

“We could easily use another 25 or 30,” Kenney said. “It’s not just WMECO, all these power companies have downsized. Then these utilities go out to hire contractors or bring in mutual aid and there just aren’t enough of those crews to go around.”

WMECO spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn said the company is adequately staffed for normal operations, but not for disasters. Last year WMECO petitioned for a rate increase to hire and train eight more line workers; a request the state turned down in February.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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