Power back on in Northampton after 90-minute Friday afternoon failure linked to squirrel in substation

Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Power was restored to more than 5,000 customers, many in downtown Northampton, about 90 minutes after a power failure knocked traffic lights out of service and forced diners and shoppers from darkened restaurants and stores.

Much of downtown turned into a parking lot as drivers inched along major routes.

The power loss was traced to a squirrel that damaged a line in a West Street substation, according to National Grid spokeswoman Darlene Masse.

“The good news is all the customers are back,” Masse said Friday evening. “The power outage is over.”

The power loss lasted from 4:30 to 6:03 p.m. In all, 5,421 Northampton residents were affected.

She said that though there are barriers in place to try to keep animals out, squirrels occasionally manage to squeeze their way in. A similar incident happened Tuesday when 4,500 customers lost power in Providence after a squirrel got into a downtown substation.

“Before this week I would have said it rarely happens,” she said with a laugh. “But as you can imagine, there are a lot of squirrels, and sometimes they get through.” It is believed that the squirrel perished.

She said no equipment was badly damaged, so local crews were able to make needed repairs and recharge the line fairly quickly.

At 6:16 p.m, Mayor David Narkewicz put on his Twitter feed, “power restored — thanks to National Grid for quick response on a busy Friday night.”

He said that the West Street substation is one of the major feeds for the city.

During the outage, residents on Montview, Williams, Bridge and North streets, Bates Avenue and the area of the Fairgrounds were all popping out from their homes to see if their neighbors had power.

King Street from Main Street to the Dunkin’ Donuts had spotty power, while the north end of King Street from Summer Street to Damon Road appeared not to have lost power.

Downtown intersections without working traffic lights became goodwill zones, where drivers were forced to take turns. Most at one junction downtown seemed to be obeying the rules of the four-way stop.

Police Lt. Craig Kirouac said the loss of the traffic light at the Exit 18 off-ramp on Mount Tom Road caused some back-up, so officers were sent there to direct the cars.

As for downtown, he said the back-ups were not significantly worse than any other busy Friday night during rush hour, but police monitored the intersections to ensure cars passed through safely.

Some drivers would disagree with that, as Conz Street filled with traffic that was at a virtual standstill for more than an hour.

Kirouac said there were no reported accidents related to the power loss, and the Northampton High School Booster parade began around 6:15 p.m. as scheduled.

A Northampton Fire Department ambulance crew responded to the Walter Salvo House on Conz Street to check on several residents who depend upon oxygen supplies that rely on electricity.

The building’s tenants’ association kicked into gear to visit floors. “I went all around the floors seeing who needs help,” said Sandra Muniz, vice president of the association.

A large group of tenants waited in the entry, lit by a generator as night came on. As the two-member ambulance crew stood by, two bicycle patrol police officers arrived to check on the building.

One elevator in the seven-story building was operating to serve its 192 apartments.

Mary Sankolewicz, the association’s fourth-floor rep, noted that a generator continued to power outlets in halls. “We’re lucky in that respect. We’re not in total darkness. It would be even worse.”

Roy Martin, the association’s president, was working just after 5 p.m. to find cords to reach from the halls to people with medical conditions. “We don’t want them to get scared or upset,” he said of older residents.

“Everybody’s freaking,” said Leslie Nelson, a resident of another Northampton Housing Authority property, the Cahill Apartments on Fruit Street, said of tenants in her eight-unit building. Unlike the Salvo House, it does not have a generator.

She was heading home after picking up two bottles of Pepsi at the Northampton Market, where clerk Tom Butler was willing to accept an IOU, since the register wasn’t running. Others were paying by cash as Butler held his cellphone’s flashlight up. Butler said his math skills were strong.

“And my holding-the-light skills are good — until the battery runs out.”

Market co-owner Dipan Patel was not looking forward to a night without lottery ticket sales or the ability to process credit and debit transactions — which account for 30 percent of his trade.

“It’s an important part, the lottery,” he said.

At the Hotel Northampton, firefighters rescued three guests from an elevator trapped on the third floor as a result of the electricity loss. Firefighters used hand tools to force the elevator doors open, said Fire Capt. Matthew Lemberg. The guests, who he did not identify, were not injured, he said.

The department also responded to several businesses and residential complexes on Conz, Earle, Myrtle, Grove, South, King, State and Revell streets and Village Hill Road for fire and carbon monoxide alarms that went off as a result of the power loss. Crews were sent out to these locations in order to ensure there were no real emergencies, Lemberg said.

Saving Friday night

Meanwhile, patrons did what they could to salvage their Friday night. Anuhea Sebstad, 20, a second-year student at Hampshire College, said she and her friends had been standing outside Zen when the lights inside the restaurant went off.

For a second, she recalled, they thought the restaurant had closed. When they realized there was a power loss, she said she remembered thinking, “Good thing we’re ordering sushi” — noting there is no heat needed to prepare that dish.

Afterward, they went to GoBerry, where they enjoyed discounted frozen yogurt before it melted.

Her friend Nina Kent, 19, of Amherst, said they noticed people bond together in the face of the sudden chaos, such as owners of food shops handing leftovers to homeless people on the sidewalks.

“Everybody becomes closer,” said Kent. “Everybody starts to talk more.”


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