Northeast Learns Lessons from ’08 Ice Storm

November 5, 2009

One of the huge pine trees that surrounded Sieglinde Poegel’s home of 42 years crashed through the roof and landed in her living room during the ice storm that crippled much of the Northeast last December.

“It sounded like I was in a war again. I lived through World War II in Germany when the bombs fell, and I was scared something awful,” she recalled.

Poegel and her husband, Werner, were unable to return permanently for several months to their home in Jaffrey, about 15 miles from the Massachusetts state line.

This year, they are taking no chances.

“The house is repaired and we took another step _ cut every tree on our property out. Every one of the trees,” said Poegel, 72. “I’ve still got rhododendron bushes, so we don’t really miss them.”

As the cold season returns to the Northeast, residents, utilities and emergency managers say they’re better prepared, thanks to the lessons from that ferocious ice storm Dec. 11-12 that left hundreds of thousands without power — some for two weeks.

At Unitil, the utility most assailed for delays in restoring power, every employee now has a storm assignment. In New Hampshire, where more than half of the state’s homes and businesses went dark, lawmakers passed a bill allowing utilities, which do year-round tree trimming in the heavily forested state, to cut on private property if landowners don’t respond to a written notice within 45 days.

Emergency management agencies in several states have emphasized training and planning for a worst-case scenario and being more aggressive about using radio, Web sites and social media outlets such as Twitter for reports of outages and updates.

State and local governments harshly criticized the utilities for their response to the storm. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities this week ordered New Hampshire-based Unitil, which provides electricity to four communities in that state, to hire an independent auditor to review its management system. Some residents sued the utility for losses incurred in the storm. New Hampshire is soon releasing its own report on the utilities’ performance.

Todd Black, a Unitil vice president, said the region, which includes his company, had never seen such devastation. He said Unitil has reached most of the 28 goals it outlined in a post-storm self-assessment. Among them: planning for an impending storm with checklists three days ahead of impact; maintaining a network of extra resources, including tree-trimming contractors and line repair crews; training more staff to assess and report damage; and accommodating more customer calls.

The company has a new emergency command center in Hampton that oversees three regional ones. It went through a mock drill in September.

“There are planning chiefs, operations chiefs, logistics chiefs, as well as administrative and finance chiefs, and of course, communications,” said Richard Francazio, Unitil’s new emergency response director. “We’ve created a very structured and disciplined format to address any type of event that comes through.”

In Massachusetts, officials from about 30 safety and emergency agencies recently attended an extended training session on handling another severe ice storm. Peter Judge of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said workers weren’t prepared for the extraordinary amount of heavy debris that blocked roads and kept power crews away from damaged equipment for days. Connecticut National Guard members with chain saws were called in to help remove fallen trees and telephone poles.

“There’s a lot more manpower involved as opposed to just getting a plow and driving down the street,” Judge said. “You literally had to cut your way down the street to get there.”

Vermont Emergency Management Director Barbara Farr said her office met with utilities to focus on the logistics of repairing downed power lines and who should pay for clearing debris from town roads. They also discussed keeping utility workers fed on the job — the state found a civilian equivalent of the military’s meals ready to eat.

In New York, which had about 330,000 outages at the storm’s peak, regulators found two utilities were slow in releasing information about restoration times and another didn’t deploy enough crews. Regulators recommended the utilities change their emergency response plans, such as including a representative on all storm-related state and regional mutual aid conference calls, even if the utility isn’t expected to be affected.

Towns also have identified areas for improvement. In Jaffrey, where 90 percent of the town’s 6,000 residents were without power at one point, the town has set up a system that can send recorded updates to their cell phones.

Still, another ice storm could be just as challenging, given that power lines run in the woods, hundreds of feet off the road in some areas, town manager Mike Hartman said.

“I’m not certain that the utilities could’ve handled it any differently and if it were to happen again, if we wouldn’t have the same problem,” he said.

In Fitchburg, Mass., one of the towns that sued Unitil, 83-year-old Robert Bonitz stayed at a hotel, slept at a middle school then stayed with two siblings during his week without power. The next month, he got his highest electric bill ever from Unitil.

“It just defied logic, the whole thing,” the retired school principal said.

Still, Bonitz was hopeful that the utility’s ice storm response will be better after its overhaul.

“I’m optimistic that it would be, let me say that,” he said. “I think it alerted them that people aren’t going to take this completely.”

Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay in Boston, Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt., and Jessica Pasko in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.

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