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Sarno requests formal investigation of WMECo

Date: 11/7/2011

Nov. 7, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — The mayor of the fourth largest city in New England said Springfield should have been a priority to Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo), but a company spokesperson said the utility had to “balance its resources.”

Sandra Ahearn of WMECo told Reminder Publications that of the 59 communities served by the utility, 44 were “greatly damaged” by the storm.

When this interview took place on the afternoon of Nov. 3, Ahearn said the remaining customers in Springfield would have power by Nov. 5.

Ahearn described the repairs as not “restoration, but re-building.”

Despite progress made on the restoration of electricity to Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno made a formal request to Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate why WMECo apparently saved Springfield for last.

Longmeadow, Southwick and West Springfield were also waiting for the restoration of power at this writing.

At a press conference on Nov. 1, Sarno, who was without power at his home, expressed frustration with WMECo’s performance. He said with a high density of population and a city with many senior citizens, Springfield should have had a response that was more than “limited sightings” of repair crews.

Ahearn said WMECo and the mayor’s office have had daily conversations. WMECo also maintained daily communication with the municipal governments of all of the affected towns.

On Nov. 2, Sarno wrote to Coakley: “I am writing to request the assistance of your office with regard to Springfield’s frustration with the performance of Western Massachusetts Electric Company during the current declared state of emergency in response to the effects of the severe winter storm.

“I am requesting that the Office of the Attorney General utilize its oversight authority relative to electric utilities to assure that WMECo deploys sufficient resources for the restoration of power to the residents of Springfield, whose residents are in dire straits with prolonged outage.

“In addition, I would request that your office review WMECo’s communications with Springfield customers as to their estimated times of power restoration.

“Springfield’s residents and businesses face the largest risk in the region, and the restoration process must be expedited during the current event and assurances must be provided that resources are available for future events this winter.”

Fifty-two percent of the WMECo customers in the city — more than 37,000 accounts — were without electricity, Sarno said.

Ahearn said, “We have had a lot of boots on the ground from day one.”

She explained that on the first day of a storm, the company responds to cutting tree limbs that have brought down lines, respond to 911 emergency calls and assess the damage.

The protocol is then to bring power back to the stations, then the main lines and finally to the side streets and neighborhoods.

“A lot of the early work that was done is not visible,” Ahearn added.

She said the company understands the inconvenience.

“This was an equal opportunity storm,” she said. “It spared no one in the Pioneer Valley.”

A restoration crew brought in from Florida told Ahearn the kind of damage they are seeing here is similar to that they have seen after a devastating hurricane.

“They couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Sarno questioned if the company was properly staffed for such emergencies and said there is a real difference between how the company responded to the tornado on June 1 and the snowstorm on Oct. 29.

“This is unacceptable,” Sarno said.

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