Another storm, another prolonged outage

One can scarcely blame National Grid for the storm that blew up the coast late Wednesday night, or for all of the trees that toppled onto houses, cars and, inevitably, power lines. As the sun rose Thursday morning, 121,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts were without electricity — nearly a third of which were on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley.

Fewer people were sitting in the dark the following day, but theirs was still a sizable number, especially on the North Shore. Schools in communities including Salem and Beverly remained closed.

By Saturday morning, the number of people without power was fewer than a couple hundred, and mostly isolated in small clusters around the region.

The slow recovery, as power outages stretched into a second day and longer, conjured memories of a similar wind and rain storm two years ago. It was nothing like the fiasco of October 2017, to be fair, but the question was the same: Why isn’t National Grid moving faster? For people dumping spoiled milk and deli meat from their refrigerators, and pulling up extra blankets on a chilly night without heat, it might have been laced with a profanity or two.

Surveying neighborhoods where all the branches were cleared, and traffic was back to a relatively normal flow, one couldn’t help keep wondering: What’s taking so long?

As much as we might hope for it, no one realistically expects magic from the electric company. When hundreds of trees fall onto power lines, it creates hundreds of tiny problems. And, National Grid certainly saw this coming. It issued a statement on Wednesday that noted predictions for high winds, heavy rains and flooding. The company advised: “We are prepared in the event the storm does damage to our networks, and we want to ensure you are prepared too.”

One sensed in that message echoes from a couple of Octobers ago, when a similar storm — a coastal storm with high winds and heavy rains — felled trees and power lines around the state. At its worst, 330,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts were without service — more than two and a half times those effected by last week’s nor’easter. More than a third of those who lost power in that storm were in the Merrimack Valley.

And, for whatever reason, National Grid’s reaction time was inordinately slow. Many homes and businesses waited four and five days for power to come back. The problem was made worse by a lack of information from the utility about its timetable. Somewhere around Day 3, frustration gave way to anger.

National Grid paid for that storm, eventually. This past January the state Department of Public Utilities handed the utility a $750,000 fine for an “inadequate” response time and poor communication. The state also leaned on the utility to improve its emergency response plan. “They need to be held accountable and responsible to ensure that after a major storm they restore power in a more timely manner,” state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said at the time. Finegold had been a vocal critic of the utility following that storm, even though he was on hiatus from the Legislature at the time.

So, how is National Grid doing now? Did a penalty from the state prompt the utility to improve? The answers depend upon whom you ask

The number who lost power in this storm was but a fraction of those left in the dark in October 2017, and the duration of the outage was certainly shorter. All told, fewer people spent less time waiting for the lights to come back on. But then, as now, the fact remains that this could’ve been a lot worse had it been a bona fide winter storm with sub-freezing temperatures, harsher conditions and roads closed by drifting snow and ice. If the electric company can’t handle some toppled trees in the fall, you can’t help but wonder how it will handle complications in the winter.

We could hope for the best, but given National Grid’s recent track record, that’s obviously not enough. The state again should seek answers from National Grid about it’s emergency plans, why it didn’t move faster, and what it will do to ensure a more prompt restoration of power after the next windstorm.

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