The predicted arrival of Hurricane Sandy will be the first major test for the utility companies’ new procedures that were borne out of the response to Tropical Storm Irene and an October snowstorm last year. Much of the state, and Wrentham in particular, spent days without power after both storms.
National Grid, the utility company which powers Wrentham, was soundly criticized. The legislation even took action and passed a new Consumer Protection Bill that put new requirements on utilities, as well as establishing fines for an inadequate response to a crisis.
A significant change is around communication. Now, utilities are required to provide a community liaison to interface with local officials. One of the biggest challenges facing towns was the exchange of information between emergency response crews and the utility companies. “I think the avenue of communications has improved,” says Wrentham Fire Chief James McMorrow.
He points to tornado watches that occurred in the summer and National Grid did a better job of preparing its equipment ahead of time and communicating to the Chief its plan leading up to the potential crisis. “They informed us when they’re gearing up and bring us more into the loop earlier.”
During the restoration of power after the storms, one of the frustrations local officials felt was the two way exchange of information with the utilities. The lack of coordination got so bad that both State Representative Dan Winslow and State Senator Richard Ross needed to make regular calls. “That should not have been necessary,” says Ross.
National Grid says it has improved its damage assessment process and will have a better understanding of its employee assignments during a storm and the restoration period. National Grid also says it has expanded its contractor relationships to bring in additional resources faster.
McMorrow speaking in general terms, not directly about Hurriacane Sandy, says the town is in a better position to respond. “We’re more prepared but we have a ways to go,” he said. “We have identified our vulnerable areas and we’ve improved the levels of communications in town administration.”
Winslow has seen improvements but more could be done he believes. “Things are better than they were and not as good as they could be,” he said.
He agrees the communication piece should be better but wants to see continued improvements around clearing trees from power lines and maintenance of the power infrastructure. “It is better to avoid the problems in the first place,” he says.
Most everyone agrees that the changes are good in theory, but the test will be an actual emergency. Hurricane Sandy has the potential to be just that test.