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In latest storm’s wake, a bit more light

Local officials give utilities mixed grades for response to outages

The Bolton Orchards country store was still operating in the dark on Tuesday. The Bolton Orchards country store was still operating in the dark on Tuesday. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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The freak pre-Halloween snowstorm delivered a particularly nasty blow to cities and towns along Interstate 495, in some communities causing power outages to practically all homes and businesses.

Northborough had lost electricity completely by Sunday afternoon, and the community’s ordeal lasted for days, with nearly a third of the town still in the dark Wednesday, according to updates posted online by National Grid.

“This has definitely been the largest impact in Northborough in anybody’s memory,’’ said Town Administrator John Coderre. “The storm impacted every street in town with downed trees and downed lines. We had some roads that were completely devastated and impassable.’’

The damage and resulting power outages from last weekend’s storm was worse than even Tropical Storm Irene and the infamous 2008 ice storm, Coderre said.

In a survey of area communities, most of the businesses and homes in Marlborough, Plainville, Southborough, and Wrentham also lost their electricity during the storm, according to figures from National Grid. Though the majority had power back by Wednesday afternoon, that still left hundreds of customers waiting in the cold.

“Those communities were absolutely hard hit,’’ Richard Sullivan Jr., the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said Wednesday. “We certainly have heard frustrations from individual customers who are now going on five days without power, and in many cases, without heat.’’

As the storm peaked and in its wake, with tree branches periodically giving way under the heavy, wet snow, tens of thousands of businesses and homes across the area were without electricity, including:

■ 17,721 out of 18,200 customers in Marlborough by 4 p.m. Sunday;

■ 3,701 out of 4,020 in Southborough by 4 p.m. on Monday;

■ 4,357 out of 4,644 in Wrentham by 4 p.m. Monday;

■ 3,642 out of 4,247 in Plainville by 4 p.m. Sunday;

■ The entire town of Northborough - 6,473 utility customers - by 4 p.m. Sunday.

Already angry over what happened during Irene, local officials were giving mixed grades to National Grid’s response to the second widespread power outage since late August.

In Marlborough, Mayor Nancy Stevens said she hadn’t seen a big improvement over Irene in terms of the approach taken by National Grid. By Tuesday morning, still more than half of the city was without electricity.

Stevens said that without an accurate estimate when power might return in different sections of the city, city officials could not make their own plans for dealing with problems.

“In terms of my frustration, it’s about the same, if not worse’’ than Irene, Stevens said. “My frustration is not getting a definitive answer from the utility companies. It’s very hard to operate when you don’t know how long you are going to be in this situation.’’

Marlborough was one of the communities that postponed Halloween trick-or-treating due to unsafe conditions.

City resident Jackie O’Rourke had lunch at McDonald’s on Monday with her two sons, ages 5 and 9, while they waited for their electricity to return.

“We have a little generator and a gas stove, so we’ve been OK,’’ O’Rourke said. “Our TV is working from the generator, and we stayed over at a friend’s house in Marlborough who does have power.’’

In a message Tuesday afternoon, Wrentham Fire Chief James McMorrow said most of the town was still without power, and he was busy coordinating a delivery of water from state emergency officials, as well as message boards and auxiliary lights to control traffic at larger intersections.

National Grid’s response was “slow at first,’’ said Coderre, Northborough’s town administrator, and nearly a third of the community still did not have power Wednesday afternoon.

However, Coderre credited a “very big push’’ by the utility Wednesday evening that reduced the area without power to 1 percent of the town by Thursday morning.

“I am not in a position to say whether they put the resources in fast enough,’’ said Coderre. “We did get an excellent response beginning around Tuesday. The effort on Wednesday was really very much appreciated.’’

After coming under criticism for poor communication with local officials after Irene, National Grid reviewed its performance and made changes, said David Graves, a spokesman for the regional utility.

As the snowstorm took its toll on the region, National Grid dispatched 100 “liaisons’’ to work directly with local officials. Many were community relations staff or managers.

“One of the lessons learned from Irene is that we need to increase or improve the means of communication,’’ Graves said.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton whose district extends into Marlborough and nearby communities, said concerns remain about both the response of the utility companies after major storms, and what seems to be the growing frequency of extreme weather.

He said the problems the larger power companies were having stand in contrast with those facing communities that operate municipal electric companies, such as Littleton and Boxborough, which had more success getting the lights back on. Eldridge credited the swifter response to having local crews ready to go to work.

By contrast, Eldridge said, he is concerned that the major power companies may not have enough crews on hand locally, and may rely too much on bringing in help from other states.

Local officials “have said there has been better communication’’ after last weekend’s storm, Eldridge said. “That being said, there is still a lot of frustration, and there has been a significant delay in restoring power this week.’’

But Captain Joseph Mauro of the Southborough Fire Department said he did see some signs for hope, with a National Grid employee in town to help coordinate operations.

“It does seem to be working out a little better than it did during Irene,’’ he said.

Millis Town Administrator Charles Aspinwall said he also saw reason for encouragement. By Tuesday morning, all but 87 homes in the town, which is serviced by the utility NStar, had their electric service restored. “Power came on sooner - that is indicative of something,’’ he said.

Sullivan, the state’s top energy official, said he also saw signs that National Grid and NStar had made changes, but questions remain. State regulators will be looking closely at the response to the latest storm and an array of concerns, including whether local utilities are keeping enough repair crews on hand.

Sullivan said it might also make sense to look at whether local utilities should start putting power lines underground, a practice common now in Europe.

“If we are going to see in the future more high-impact, high-intensity storms, you have to think about a lot of things differently,’’ Sullivan said.

Globe correspondent Michelle Cerulli contributed to this report.