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Storm’s harsh indignities linger

By Peter Schworm and Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 1, 2011

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ATHOL - Hundreds of thousands of utility customers headed into a third day without power as crews scrambled to repair damage from the bizarre winter storm that left more than 2 feet of snow in parts of the state, and officials warned that many households would not have electricity until Friday.

The storm, which over the weekend blanketed much of the Northeast, played a role in at least five deaths. In addition to two highway fatalities in Falmouth and the electrocution of a Springfield man reported earlier, an elderly woman died in a Lunenburg fire, and a person in Hatfield died from carbon monoxide fumes from a generator that was not adequately ventilated, authorities said.

Even as temperatures returned to more seasonal levels and snow melted rapidly, officials sought disaster relief and said an unprecedented number of work crews were coping with unusually heavy damage as they grappled with downed power lines, felled trees, and impassable roads.

The storm pummeled Western Massachusetts towns still recovering from Hurricane Irene in late August and a destructive tornado in early June.

In Monson, a small town east of Springfield that was nearly flattened by the tornado, nearly 70 percent of residents lost electricity, and roads and sidewalks were strewn with broken branches. The town’s emergency shelter was open, and residents wearily muddled through the aftermath of the latest damaging weather.

“It’s overwhelming,’’ said Bill Chaiffre, a police dispatcher in town, which received about a foot of heavy snow. “But we’ll get by.’’

At a morning news conference at the state’s emergency headquarters in Framingham, officials including Governor Deval Patrick asked for the public’s patience as more than a half-million utility customers waited for power to be restored. Patrick said some 1,500 utility crews were working as fast as they could.

“The progress they’ve made is terrific,’’ Patrick said. “But they have to keep that progress going.’’

Patrick, who declared a state of emergency over the weekend, yesterday requested a disaster declaration from the federal government that would allow cities and towns to recoup damage costs.

Officials estimated that the number of customers without power - 671,000 at the height of the storm - would fall to about 260,000 by yesterday evening.

Areas around Lowell, Worcester, and Springfield were hit particularly hard. In Athol, about 25 miles west of Fitchburg, more than 90 percent of the town lost power and as much as 2 feet of snow fell. Dozens of residents sought cots and food at a Town Hall shelter.

“It’s way too cold at home,’’ said Holly Geedy, 23. “We can be warm here, and we can get decent food.’’

Deputy Fire Chief John Duguay said 30 people had slept in the shelter on Sunday night, and that more - particularly the elderly - were expected last night.

“After one night in the cold, they might not want to do another,’’ Duguay said.

Much of the damage to power lines was localized and scattered, delaying restoration efforts, state officials said.

“It is a slow process, as many of these connections are at the street level and home level,’’ said Richard Sullivan Jr., the state’s energy secretary.

Patrick said he understood the frustration of people who have lost power, but said the utilities have handled the storm well.

However, critics said the response was dangerously slow, forcing many people to go without heat during cold weather.

“I join with hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts consumers in expressing my outrage at the current situation,’’ Senator Scott Brown wrote in a letter to the state’s electric companies.

“Our state’s utilities received similar criticism during the response to Hurricane Irene, and I am concerned that lessons learned from that storm have already been forgotten,’’ he wrote.

Peter Judge, a spokesman for the state’s emergency agency, said the storm, which dumped between 1 and 2 feet of snow in much of Worcester and Franklin counties, was reminiscent of the 2008 ice storm, which knocked out power to more than 1 million homes and businesses. Then, as now, crews had to use chainsaws to reach certain streets, he said.

The unusually heavy snowfall appears to have broken records for October storms, meteorologists said. More than 11 inches fell in Worcester, for example, surpassing the previous mark of 7.5 inches in 1979. But in scope and impact, this surprise storm stands alone.

“This by far trumps even the last [October] snowstorm that we had’’ in 1979, said Benjamin Sipprell, a meteorologist at the forecaster’s office in Taunton.

In Athol, Susan Burns, 55, lay bundled in several layers of clothing, a quilt over her body and a hood over her head, as she tried to keep warm in the living room of the storm-battered home where she and her fiance live.

Before dawn Sunday, an oak tree crashed into the roof, opening a gaping hole in a spare bedroom. Their car was destroyed by a massive limb, and utility poles outside tilted at odd angles.

The crash came about 5:30 a.m. as Burns and her fiance, Juan Otero, lay asleep.

“I just put my hands over my head and screamed,’’ Burns said. “The house shook. I couldn’t imagine what it was. It was so awful.’’

Yesterday afternoon, the pair waited for word from their insurance company as the temperature inside the home hovered in the 40s.

“We’ve got plenty of food,’’ said Otero, a cabinetmaker whose home workshop was undamaged. He even managed to joke about the mess.

“I’ve got a new skylight,’’ he said.

In town, some roads remained impassable, National Grid crews scoured the town’s 111 miles of roads for downed lines, and a flashing electronic sign outside Town Hall announced “Halloween postponed.’’

After all the other strange weather that has zeroed in on the town and its neighbors, the latest freak storm left residents shaking their heads.

“It’s really been a strange year,’’ said David Ames, the town’s manager. “Mother Nature is going to get you one way or another.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jaime Lutz contributed to this report.