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Residents Speak Out Over National Grid's Handling of Hurricane Irene

Attleboro and area towns seek answers from National Grid on extended power outages.

State and local officials are fed up with the handling of power outages after Hurricane Irene went before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities Thursday night to share their disgust with the handling of and the

One by one residents and officials were sworn and shared their complaints of National Grid's handling of Irene during a public hearing held at

The storms, occurring just a couple of months apart left many area residents without electrical power for up to a week or more.

The small auditorium took on a courtroom feel, as each speaker was sworn in and all proceedings were recorded by an independently hired courtroom stenographer.  

National Grid Massachusetts President Marcy Reed was first to take the podium and read from a prepared statement: "Irene was forecasted to affect most of the eastern seaboard and ultimately caused widespread destruction from the Carolinas to New England. As a result of Irene, over six million electric customers in 11 states were left without power. This is why it was so difficult to obtain the number of outside crews we needed, since many other utilities form Florida to Maine needed to keep their own crews in place to restore power locally.  We had to call for crews from as far away as Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Wisonsin and Canada," Reed said.

It was the issues of preventive tree-trimming, lack of communication and the extended duration of the outages that proved to be a recurring theme from those who addressed the DPU.  Attleboro City Councilor Walter Thibodeau, who served on the Mass Electric Consumer Advisory Council from 2002 until that council was dissolved in 2006, felt that the widespread outages may have been avoided if better attention had been paid to proper line, pole and transformer maintenance.

"Some medical customers who had put in requests for generators waited up to six months to receive this free preventive service," Thibodeau said.  The councilor also referenced this month's National Grid bill insert sheet titled "Preparing for Winter's Worst", with one suggestion being that customers purchase a camp stove for cooking. "I wonder if the NFPA (National Fire Prevention Association) was consulted on this?" Thibodeau asked. "I doubt it as all local fire departments would never suggest such a solution due to the temptation of using the stove as a replacement for heating the residence resulting in death by carbon monoxide poisonining."

Foxboro selectman Jim DeVellis said that the Town of Foxboro has filed a formal petition with the DPU to investigate National Grid's lack of response to Irene. "Much of Foxboro was without power from August 28 to September 3," DeVellis said. "We want to impose substantial penalties on National Grid for failure to trim trees and failure to communicate. Customers should not have to pay for National Grid's deficiencies."

Attleboro City Councilor Frank Cook said that he's still seeing a lot of branches hanging over wires. "With winter on the way I see history repeating itself," Cook said. "I've also noticed the streets looking a lot darker with many street lights out. Are there any plans to restore these lights in the near future?"

Ray Cord, Norton's Deputy Director of Emergency Management suggested that substandard poles along North Washington Street may have been partly to blame.  "Maybe those poles were ok at one time, but perhaps they weren't designed for the loads on them now," he said. "Everyone wants cable and internet and these poles should be upgraded."  Cord made another point concerning National Grid's community liaison system. "The community liaison wasn't the same person for both storms," he said. "The liaison should stay with the town and not have a new one come in and have to learn the town all over again."

State Rep. Betty Poirier emphasized the need to prioritize power restoration, making sure that hospitals and the elderly are taken care of.  "Everyone knew this storm was coming yet people were still unprepared," Poirier said.  "There needs to be an ongoing education program, with information added to the bills and maybe people will pay better attention."

Rep. Jay Barrows echoed many of the previous statements regarding tree trimming efforts, but touched upon the fact that some residents don't want to see their trees cut or trimmed. "Hopefully residents will be accepting of the fact that some trees need to come down," Barrows said.  "Some of our senior citizen housing doesn't have generators and these folks rely on National Grid." "We need to work on a shelter system".

Last to speak was Foxboro resident Howard Siegal.  Siegal directed his anger and concerns directly at the DPU, pointing his finger at the DPU representatives as he spoke.  

"This is from the DPU website," Siegal said: "The mission of the DPU is to provide consumers with the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost.

"Here in Foxboro the electricity's NOT cheap and it's certainly NOT reliable," he added. "Parts of Foxboro were without electricity for 12 days," he shouted. "National Grid has easements to go out and keep those lines clear. They have an obligation to do their job."

Once the hearing had concluded, National Grid's Reed commented briefly on what she had heard. "We saw whole trees knocked over by the 70 mile per hour winds. No amount of tree trimming was going to prevent that," she said.  "Last year new legislation passed, which allows us to present an annual tree-trimming plan to a town or city's tree warden," she added "If the tree warden approves the plan we can then go into the town and do our work without the need to attend weekly meetings and talk about particular areas of concern."

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