Valley recovers from ‘SnowMAGEDDON’Nov. 7, 2011
By Chris Maza
Reminder Assistant Editor
GREATER SPRINGFIELD It was like to tornado, only it was everywhere.
That was the comparison some made when describing the widespread damage resulting from the strong early-season snow storm that crippled most of the Pioneer Valley on Oct. 29, leaving thousands without power or heat for several days.
Throughout the towns of East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Wilbraham and Hampden, as well as Springfield’s Sixteen Acres neighborhood, heavy wet snow downed large and small tree limbs and felled power lines and utility poles, causing extensive damage to town and private property.
President Barack Obama officially declared a state of emergency for eight Massachusetts counties, including Hampden County, on Nov. 1.
The National Guard was deployed to assist in cleanup in Springfield and Hampden, as well as other communities, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), while also providing security at the established shelter in Springfield.
Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo), which serves Springfield and Longmeadow, said that more than 154,000 people approximately 73 percent in its coverage area were without power at one point. WMECo serves a total of 212,389 customers.
“The magnitude of this storm is unprecedented in terms of sheer widespread damage to our system,” Peter Clarke, WMECo president and chief operating officer, said. “We are mobilizing all available resources to stabilize the system and restore service to our customers as safely and quickly as we possibly can. We know how difficult it is for our customers to be without power and we appreciate their patience.”
Meanwhile, National Grid, powering East Longmeadow, Wilbraham and Hampden, said that at the peak of the storm almost 500,000 customers in Massachusetts were in the dark. By Oct. 30, that number was down to approximately 165,000, including 4,272 in Hampden County.
“We want our customers to know that we are doing everything we can to restore their power,” Ellen Smith, National Grid chief operations officer, said. “We have thousands of personnel dedicated to the restoration effort including crews from as far away as Texas and Colorado. We will continue to work around the clock until every customer has power.”
In addition, nearly 28 percent of cell phone service in Hampden Country was interrupted, according to MEMA.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before,” East Longmeadow Board of Selectmen Chair James Driscoll said. “The storm affected everybody. There’s damage everywhere, so it has taken some time to figure out who has been affected and to prioritize who should get power and services back on first.”
Driscoll said once the transmission lines from substations in Monson and Hampden were repaired, areas with senior living communities and adult care facilities were the first priority for repair.
Still, as of the morning of Nov. 3, National Grid was reporting that more than 4,200 of the town’s 6,571 customers were still without power.
In the meantime, a shelter was set up at Birchland Park Middle School and hundreds of residents flocked to it in an effort to stay warm, eat and recharge their electronic devices.
“We had something like 600 people there [Tuesday] and almost 200 people spending the night,” Driscoll said.
With residents in need of an emergency shelter in response to a major disaster for the second time in a six-month period, Driscoll said he felt it was essential for the town to establish a secondary shelter with the Council on Aging at the Pleasant View Senior Center. The town has been eying the installation of a generator at that location for that purpose with the hope of being able to win a Community Development Block Grant to fund the project.
“I think I am more of a supporter of it now than I have ever been and I have been behind it all the way,” Driscoll said. “The fact that the generator at the school stopped working for about an hour highlights our need for two shelters.”
Driscoll said the town would not have any cost estimates pertaining to cleanup because the Department of Public Works (DPW), along with other town entities, would likely be working through the weekend in order to fully restore the town to working order.
“It depends on when all the work is done and what happens in terms of how much we are reimbursed by the state and federal government,” he said.
DPW Operations Manager John Collins concurred with Driscoll.
“It’s very early and I couldn’t even venture a guess in that regard,” he said. “We are hopeful that most of that money will be reimbursed because there is a declared state of emergency. If we do get reimbursed, that money would go back into the general fund.”
Regardless of the cost, Collins said the DPW has been and will continue cleaning up the streets until all of the rights of way are passable. That cleanup includes the removal of tree limbs and debris from roadsides and tree belts.
However, residents are not allowed to put debris from private property onto tree belts for removal.
“We don’t want people bringing their branches and debris to the tree belt because it would be just too overwhelming for us,” he said.
Residents wishing to dispose of debris on their property may do so at the transfer station on Somers Road. The DPW announced it would be open on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until further notice.
Essentially the entire town of Longmeadow was in the dark for nearly five days, but was slowly recovering by the end of the week.
“We were like a boxer who was knocked down for the mandatory eight count, but we’ve gotten back up,” Longmeadow Select Board Chair Mark Gold said. “We’re limping back to normal.”
Gold said he appreciated the work of WMECo employees to re-establish power, but that the process was slow-going.
As of 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 2, he said power had only been restored to the center of town near the Big Y and the Shell station and 94 percent of the town’s customers were still waiting for power. By 4 p.m. on Nov. 3, the number of residents with power was up to approximately 35 percent.
“The guys with the boots on the ground, some of whom came from Iowa and Oklahoma, have been doing great, but we need something like 20 more crews just like them,” Gold said. “Work has been getting done and they’re saying we’re at 31 percent and then 35 percent with power, but to me those figures are just a publicity stunt. I don’t have power at my house. I’m not at 35 percent power I’m at 0 percent. You either have power or you don’t and right now most people still do not have power.”
Gold also said communication with companies such as Verizon and Comcast was not constructive or helpful in the week following the storm.
“I haven’t been able to get anyone from Verizon on the phone. If Verizon has been around, I haven’t seen them and Comcast is just giving false information,” he said, explaining that he has talked to residents who reported that Comcast representatives told them that whenever power is restored, their service would be as well.
“[Residents] are talking to customer service centers that could be in Yuma, Ariz., for all we know and they’re not getting the right information. We invited Comcast to join us at our emergency communications center, but they declined,” he added, saying he “yelled at, then begged” a local representative from Comcast for help.
The town opened warming and recharging centers at Center School, which was open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Glenmeadow Retirement Community, which was open until 6 p.m. Residents looking for shelter overnight were directed to a regional shelter at Chicopee High School.
By Nov. 2, Longmeadow’s warming center was moved to the Longmeadow High School cafeteria as power was restored. In addition to the warming center, the Red Cross set up a shelter in the gym that night where residents could stay overnight when the Chicopee relief center closed.
As the town sat in darkness, property tax bills remained due and residents were asked to drop their payments in the Town Hall drop box.
“Even with the power out, I knew that the town would want this money on time,” quipped one resident, who wished to remain anonymous.
The Clerk’s office opened on Nov. 3 to allow residents to turn in committee nomination papers on time.
“Town Hall opened [on Nov. 3]. There wasn’t a lot they could do with the computers, but it was important for the Town Hall to be open so people could get answers to questions they may have had,” Gold said.
The Longmeadow DPW began work on cleanup on Nov. 2, allowing residents to move any debris on their property up to 30 feet behind their houses to the tree belt.
“Whether [the debris] is on the tree belt or on private property, it’s a public hazard and if people move it to the tree belt, we will pick it up,” Gold said. “The Select Board has made a commitment that we’re going to continue cleaning up until it is done. It’s our understanding that we may not get to it all before it gets buried in the next snowstorm, but come spring, we’ll go back out there and finish.”
The Meadows on West Road was also open on Nov. 5 for residents to drop off any debris and leaves that fell on their property.
Gold said that because the town was operating under a federal state of emergency, the town would be reimbursed for 75 percent of any cleanup costs, provided all cleanup crews and procedures are acceptable according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) audits. How much the town would have to pay for cleanup remains in question.
“Speaking truthfully I haven’t a clue,” Gold said. “We’re just going to do it and figure out how to pay for it later because, quite frankly, it needs to be done. Eventually we will have the pay the piper and we realize that this is not going to be cheap for the town, but it is essential that it gets done.”
While Wilbraham’s Town Hall was quick to get power back, the rest of the town was not so lucky.
Town Administrator Robert Weitz told Reminder Publications that power had been restored to Town Hall as of the middle of the day on Oct. 31, but most residents were still without power.
According to WMECo, as of the morning of Nov. 3, nearly half of the company's 5,970 customers in Wilbraham were still affected by service interruptions and a release from the town stated that town officials have been told that some residents’ power might not be restored until the weekend.
Those without electricity were directed to the Hampden Senior Center on Allen Street or the secondary shelter at the Green Meadow School in Hampden.
“We teamed up with Hampden to provide residents from both towns a regional shelter,” Weitz said. “We provided the medical staff and the supplies and they provided the building.”
Weitz added that when it opens, the new Minnechaug Regional High School would act as the regional emergency shelter.
The Wilbraham Senior Center opened as a warming station during the day as well on Nov. 3. Because many residents affected were without water because electric pumps feed water to their houses from their wells, the Fire Department provided drinking water and the Springfield YMCA offered hot showers. Town Hall offered residents a wireless Internet hotspot.
The DPW originally announced it would begin cleanup of the town’s right of ways on Nov. 9, picking up vegetative debris that is blocking roadways, but Weitz later said that there was no timetable.
“It’s a work in progress. We were hoping to get started [this week], but half the town is still without power,” he said. “Until that gets resolved, we really can’t do anything.”
Regardless of when cleanup begins, the town will not be picking up debris that fell on private property from the tree belt. Instead, the town has opened the disposal and recycling center for all residents, regardless of whether or not they have a sticker.
Like other towns, Wilbraham will have to take a wait-and-see approach to the cost of the recovery from the storm and how much will be reimbursed.
“MEMA will deploy assessment teams to survey the damage,” Weitz said. “There are certain thresholds that have to be met in order to be reimbursed. Most likely we will surpass those thresholds, but it remains to be seen.”
According to MEMA, “A major disaster declaration that authorizes public assistance likely would authorize 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of emergency protective measures and the cost of repairing/replacing damaged public infrastructure. A major disaster declaration that authorizes snow assistance likely would authorize 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of snow and ice removal.”
Messages left for Hampden Board of Selectmen Chair Richard Green and Highway Department Superintendent Dana Pixley were not returned as of press time, however, National Grid reported that 1,414 of the company’s 2,124 customers in town were still without power on the morning of Nov. 4.
Several roadways, including Stony Hill Road, were blocked or partially blocked by fallen trees, limbs or utility wires.
All schools in the East Longmeadow, Longmeadow and Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) were closed through Nov. 5.
The HWRSD website announced that school would resume on Nov. 7 and the district’s scheduled in-service day on Nov. 10 has been cancelled and classes will take place that day.
East Longmeadow School Superintendent Gordon Smith said there has not been any discussion regarding how the missed time will affect the remainder of the school schedule.
“It’s something we will discuss, but the fortunate thing is we are just into early November, so we have time and can see what people are interested in doing,” he said. “We haven’t finalized any plans. The hope is that we won’t have a winter like the one we had last year and we won’t have to make major adjustments.”
Smith added that as of Nov. 4, all five schools in the district had power and custodial crews were assessing the condition of the schools in hopes of resuming classes Nov. 7.
Calls placed to Longmeadow School Superintendent Marie Doyle and HWRSD Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea were not returned as of press time.