Utilities, emergency crews prepare for next week's ‘Frankenstorm’
Leaving nothing to chance, the two utility companies that service most of Hampshire County spent Thursday lining up extra crews in advance of a nasty storm that could smack the region Sunday and stick around through most of next week.
That work will continue today at National Grid and Western Massachusetts Electric Co., with spokesmen for both companies saying they hope to have the crews in place Sunday before the arrival of “Frankenstorm.” That’s what meteorologists are calling the mix of Hurricane Sandy, an early winter storm from the west and cold arctic air from the north.
“Everybody is on high alert,” said WMECO spokesman Frank Poirot.
He said the utility, which services Amherst, Easthampton and other Hampshire County communities, is taking the unprecedented step of doubling its electrical line crews by bringing in workers from the Midwest and elsewhere.
“We are reaching way outside our service area and we hope to have them in place Sunday before the storm,” Poirot said.
WMECO is also lining up more tree crews to help the company deal with downed limbs that could cause significant damage to the company’s distribution system.
“There are a lot of things to think about here as we watch the forecasts, and we’re watching them closely,” Poirot said.
So too are officials at National Grid, which serves Northampton, Belchertown and Granby. The company is also reaching out to contractors from as far away as California. Those workers are on standby and if the forecast holds steady, they will be called in before the storm arrives, said spokeswoman Charlotte McCormack.
“It’s all really based on the forecast but we’re not going to take any risks in lieu of what happened last year,” she said, referring to the 2011 Halloween snowstorm that hit the region one year ago and left thousands without power for days.
Meantime, officials at the American Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter were spending Thursday night lining up volunteers, checking supplies and making sure agreements are in place with communities should shelters need to be opened.
“We’re taking it seriously, that’s for sure,” said Mary Nathan, regional response manager of the American Red Cross Central and Western Massachusetts. “When a storm gives us notice it makes it much easier on us.”
Nathan said the Red Cross has 250 volunteers in the Valley, but can tap into the organization’s national network of volunteers, if needed.
Each community is also going through its preparation checklist, from updating contact lists to ensuring adequate staffing, testing generators, arranging for shelters and making other precautions, said Larry Holmberg, emergency management director for the towns of Goshen and Chesterfield.
“Communities right now are planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Holmberg, who is also a member of the Hampshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee. “The trouble is we don’t know what to expect. We have multiple storm track possibilities right now.”
Officials at WMECO and National Grid hope that procedures implemented based on lessons they learned from the Halloween storm last year will lead to quicker restoration and better communication this time around.
“We know we didn’t live up to customers’ expectations last year,” McCormack said. “We know we need to do better.”
To that end, National Grid said it has invested “tens of millions of dollars” in strengthening its New England electric distribution infrastructure in the last year.
National Grid and WMECO will also put new liaison programs to the test next week. The utilities have trained liaisons who will be assigned to communities across the state.
Both utilities have put in place enhanced communication, from stepping up the use of social media to installing web-based tools for improved two-way communication with customers.
Additionally, National Grid has launched a new text message and e-mail alert system. The free service will enable customers to receive texts and updates. To sign up, test the word STORM to NGRID (64743).