Lights Out: Recent Power Outages Raise Questions

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Storms , Public Utilities

A utility crew repairs power lines on Depot Road in Chatham last Wednesday. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM Come snow, rain, wind or high water, there’s one thing on the minds of many Lower Cape residents as the latest coastal storm passes through: will the lights stay on?

In what appears to have been the largest power outage since Hurricane Bob in 1991, the Cape saw nearly 120,000 people without power during the height of last week’s blizzard, with the entire town of Chatham without electrical service for a time, along with more than 90 percent of Harwich and 80 percent of Orleans.

“It’s frustrating,” Chatham Board of Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said. “I do think that we need to figure out why.”

“This was nearly an unprecedented storm,” Eversource spokesman Mike Durand said. “The damage on this storm was devastating.” Three successive storms that brought the region combinations of high winds and heavy snow caused nearly 120,000 Cape Codders to lose service. More than 1,000 utility crews from as far away as Canada and Florida worked many consecutive 18-hour shifts to restore power.

“We never demobilized from the March 2 storm,” Durand said. And as of press time Tuesday, another coastal storm was preparing to strike the area.

Gov. Charlie Baker visited the county’s multi-agency coordination center after the last storm, and said the last few weeks have been crazy ones.

“I was doing the math,” Baker said. Following last week’s storm, crews had restored and re-restored power to a million residential and commercial customers in the state, he said. The number of outages might be a record, he said.

“That has huge consequences for almost everything,” Baker said. “It has consequences for not just businesses, but it has consequences for families and schools and the works.”

Locally, businesses that had power or used generators – like the Chatham Squire and Larry’s P.X. – saw booming business during the extended outages. Other businesses were forced to close, and some food vendors and restaurants had to dispose of stock that went too long without refrigeration, Metters said. While much of downtown Chatham was without power for more than two days, many of those businesses were already closed for the season, he said.

Chatham Fire Chief Peter Connick said that, in addition to countless lines brought down by tree limbs, many wires came down after they were coated with two to three inches of ice.

“They’re just not designed to stay up for that,” Connick said.

Deputy Chatham Police Chief John Cauble said the damage was substantial, but so was the response by Eversource.

“I thought it went fairly well, considering the number of outages,” he said, noting that crews worked to restore power even while the storm was ongoing. The department was flooded with calls about outages, Cauble added.

“The power goes out for 10 minutes and our phones light up,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t prepared because they just don’t think about these things.”

Durand said Eversource will be reaching out to local government officials for feedback on its response, and will look for things it might do better next time.

“From what we’ve learned so far, folks really understand the magnitude of what we were dealing with,” he said. In just a few days, the utility restored power hundreds of thousands of times, Durand noted.

“That is really remarkable,” he said.

Connick said that while power restoration went as well as could be expected, “communication probably could’ve been better,” he said. Some of the town’s priority sites remained without power longer than expected, including the police station, the fire station and Liberty Commons nursing home, all of which operated on backup power.

“We were running for days on the generator, which is Plan B,” Connick said. “That becomes an issue if Plan B fails.”

More frequent updates from the utility would be helpful for all of the town’s residents, particularly senior citizens, Metters said.

“We have an older population. We need to be able to communicate better with them,” he said. Absent accurate information on how long outages might last, it was hard for vulnerable residents to decide whether to make the trek to the nearest regional shelter at the Cape Tech school in Harwich, Metters said.

“I do think that, within our own borders, we need to look at how to put together a warming [center] and/or charging facility,” he said. The facility wouldn’t necessarily meet the standards of a full shelter, but would provide a place for people to warm up, get a cup of coffee and charge their cell phones, Metters said. Doing so might require that the town install generators at some facilities, and have a plan in place for staffing the center, he added.

Cauble said it was good that the county regional emergency planning committee opened the regional shelter when it did. Last Wednesday night, 78 people and eight pets sought refuge at the tech school.

“But the town definitely needs to have a more formalized warming center,” he said. During the second coastal storm, town officials opened an impromptu warming center at the council on aging, but that operation was brought together at the last minute, Cauble said.

Trees are the number one cause of power outages, Durand said. The utility has an ongoing tree maintenance program, providing pruning and tree removal around power lines. While its own crews regularly identify problem trees, people can report them directly from the Eversource website, he said. Some communities and property owners resist the utility’s efforts to trim trees, and Eversource seeks to strike a balance between protecting the power grid and preserving aesthetics, Durand said.

As for this week’s storm, Durand said Eversource is preparing for plowable snow off-Cape and high winds by the coastline.

“We anticipate there will be some damage. We’ll be ready for it,” he said.