WMECO works to restore power to hilltowns

High up on the hills, the towns of Ashfield, Heath and Rowe were the main areas left in the dark after Hurricane Sandy blew through Franklin County and the main focus of restoration efforts by Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

As Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast on Monday morning, 2,000 WMECO customers were without power. By late afternoon, power outages peaked at 5,000 WMECO customers.

By Tuesday afternoon, restoration efforts were well under way. A total of 1,250 WMECO customers in the county were without power. From Springfield to the Berkshires, WMECO had restored 40,000 customers from 8 a.m. Monday to 10 a.m. Tuesday.

The utility company hoped to have 99 percent of its customers restored by midnight.

The main trouble area is the hilltowns, said Doug Clarke, manager of the WMECO Greenfield office.

With higher elevation, these towns suffer more damaging wind gusts. During the storm, gusts reached up to 60 miles per hour.

“It’s not the poles that fall over. It’s trees that lose limbs and branches. Trees are 75 percent of the reason for power outages,” Clarke said.

Trees were once again the main culprit in Hurricane Sandy.

Out of its Greenfield office, WMECO dispatched an additional 38 line crews and 20 tree crew —made up of two members and one bucket truck — for Hurricane Sandy. The utility company drew staff as far as Michigan and Indiana.

According to Clarke, preparations for the East Coast storm began last Wednesday.

“The weather forecasts were increasingly consistent in terms of the expected path. We had the unusual luxury of having more advance warning, which enabled us to prepare logistical support and reach out to other parts of the country for resources,” Clarke said.

On Sunday night, WMECO had crews staying in hotels in Hadley and Springfield ready for deployment.

On the day of the storm, WMECO opened up its storm rooms, including the office on Shelburne Road. At the Greenfield storm room, which handles 20 towns, WMECO dispatches crews to outage locations and there are two staff members dedicated to communicating with town officials.

“Without question, I think we were fortunate we escaped the potential magnitude projected for the area. We had over 50 crews staged for this area and across western Massachusetts,” Clarke said.

The utility company’s preparations are a contrast from last year when the region was pounded by Tropical Storm Irene and a surprise October snowstorm that resulted in power outages for a large part of the state WMECO, National Grid and NStarr.

Since last fall, the company has enhanced vegetation trimming and removal on its rights-of-way and added advanced automation to reinforce the electric grid; revised its information sharing procedures with cities and towns; and installed web-based tools for improved two-way communication with customers.

Community officials in the WMECO service area now have exclusive access to a web-based portal providing key information about the status of critical facilities within their respective cities and towns, as well as up-to-date outage and restoration information. Designated community liaisons and a real-time emergency reporting tool will further improve communication with local officials.

WMECO urges customers still without power to call 877-659-6326 for assistance.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268

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