West of the River communities hit hard
Date: 11/9/2011 Nov. 9, 2011
By Debbie Gardner
WESTFIELD Ed Mello, director of the Greater Westfield and Western Hampden County Medical Reserve Corps started setting up the three shelters at Juniper Park Elementary School at 1 p.m. on Oct 29.
Experience and the three weather services he monitors when a potential storm threatens told him that the snow expected that day was going to require the services of his volunteers.
“This was all set up and ready to go,” Mello told Reminder Publications
as he gestured toward the school cafeteria, the area sheltering those residents with medical issues, last Thursday afternoon. One side of the room was filled with neat rows of cots, the other with tables where groups of residents were talking among themselves and playing board games.
“We fed the first group supper that [first] night,” he added.
Mello was ahead of scores of other residents in Agawam, West Springfield, Westfield and Southwick, most of whom were caught by surprise by the severity of the impact of the of the late October snowfall.
As Western Massachusetts was plunged into darkness, residents and businesspeople had to learn to cope with up to seven days of no heat, electricity, cable television or Internet, and at times, no reliable news about the progress of repairs.
Schools were cancelled for the week, many people lost several days of wages and those businesses that were able to open, often on a cash-only basis, were overwhelmed by the needs of their customers.
Four days into the emergency, on Nov. 1, President Barack Obama declared Western Massachusetts a federal disaster area.
According to figures provided on the Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo) website, a total of 12,852 customers lost electrical power in Agawam, 12,645 customers lost power in West Springfield and 4,337 lost power in Southwick as a result of the storm.
By Nov. 7, all but a few customers in each of those towns had their power restored, with WMECo reporting approximately a 1 percent outage across its multi-municipality service area.
Sean Fitzgerald, spokesperson for Westfield Gas & Electric (WG&E), the utility that services the City of Westfield, said at the height of the power outage on Oct. 29, as much as 90 percent of the utility’s 18,000 customers were without power.
“We had three of our four transmission lines go down; we were hanging by a thread,” Fitzgerald said. “If the fourth had gone down the entire city would have been in darkness.”
Fitzgerald went on to explain that like most power companies, including WMECo, WG&E receives its power through transmission lines that are part of the Northeast grid. Those lines are actually owned by companies such as Northeast Utilities and National Grid.
The transmission line outage was not the only issue with the loss of electricity in Westfield and other cities and towns. In Westfield, which Fitzgerald said is the “second biggest municipality in terms of area in the state,” WG&E had to deal with “multiple trees down and 400 miles of wire that had to have some type of tree removal” before repairs could begin.
He said WG&E had called for mutual aid from fellow utility companies to deal with the magnitude of the repairs, drawing crews from “Greenville, N.C., Canada, Norwich, Conn., and some mutual aid from towns in eastern Massachusetts.” In total, the company put 78 two-person crews on the streets “working 16 to 20 hours a day” to restore power to customers.
As of Nov. 7, a post on WG&E’s website reported that the utility had completed the first phase of its restorations, and was working to bring all side roads back into service. It also indicated “over six months of work has been performed in six days (without the additional outside help). This is to convey the magnitude of damage caused by this storm and what our workers have gone through.”
West Springfield Mayor Edward Gibson, who became well-versed in dealing with municipal devastation following the June 1 tornado that cut a swath through the Merrick section of his town, said the destruction wrought by the Oct. 29 snowstorm was “eight to 10 times as large” as that of the tornado. As of Nov. 2, he said WMECo had told him that there were “300 [power] crews out in the region, not just in West Springfield, but all over the place.”
“There will be some substantial cost to it,” Gibson noted when asked about the post-storm clean-up and repair efforts, which once again included units dispatched by the Massachusetts National Guard.
Laurie Cassidy, director of the West Springfield Senior Center on Park Street, which operated as a shelter during the power outage, praised the work of the many municipal and community volunteers who helped townspeople get through this most recent, and widespread, emergency.
“Every two months there’s been something big to deal with,” she said, noting the June tornado, the rain and wind damage from Tropical Storm Irene in August, the earthquake, and then the Oct. 29 snowstorm. “I can say the community has been very responsive.”
She thanked the West Springfield Police and Fire Departments for providing personnel to help staff the 24-hour shelter, which she said saw its occupancy rate increase steadily as last week’s power outage stretched into multiple days and people “reached their max.” She noted the shelter housed approximately 30 people on an overnight basis, and served approximately 80 people at its mid-day meals.
Jack Dowd, director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), said that, like many surrounding communities, West Springfield has contracted with AshBritt Environmental Inc. for assistance with the massive clean-up of post-storm debris.
“They are a disaster management group” that specializes in wood waste removal, he said, adding that AshBritt has “12 vendors working for them,” many of which have traveled to this area from Louisiana and other areas in the South. Those crews will be working alongside the town’s DPW crews to manage the debris and “hangers” in the trees on public ways.
He added the DPW would pick up wood waste from residential tree belts until Dec. 15, though he asked the townspeople to try and get any debris out to the curb as quickly as possible.
Dowd said the Federal Emergency Management Agency only allows a certain amount of time following a natural disaster for a community to receive reimbursement for clean-up costs.
“Though we recognize this is an arduous task, we need [residents’] cooperation to get debris out as quickly as possible,” he said.
In Agawam, which Mayor Richard Cohen reported had suffered “a 100 percent outage” of power as a result of the heavy, wet snowfall, power was restored to all but a handful by Monday morning, and school was back in session.
“I hear two people [are still without power] and I don’t know if that’s true,” Cohen said when reached on Nov. 7 for a post-emergency update.
He acknowledged that the length of the power outage was “a very trying and frustrating event for everyone.”
He said the shelter at the Agawam Senior Center, which “opened immediately” when the power went out, finally closed its doors on Sunday at noon, “when there was no person left,” in need of its services.
The Agawam Public Library, he added, opened as soon as power was available in that area of town, serving as a daytime warming shelter and charging station for resident’s cell phones “and anything else they needed during the day.”
As of Monday morning, he said debris cleanup was moving along swiftly, thanks in part to aid the town received from two crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“I drove around yesterday and I was amazed at what a phenomenal job our Department of Public Works (DPW) and two FEMA crews have done in this community,” Cohen said.
Cohen added that he is “extremely proud” of the job that Agawam’s DPW, its Police and Fire Departments, and its Emergency management personnel did during this latest disaster.
“This was probably the most extremely difficult experience of my career because, as mayor, I experienced the same power outage at my own house and as a human being, I have the same feelings, so I certainly sympathize with how frustrating it was,” Cohen said. “But one thing I am proud of is that in Agawam, family, friends and neighbors pulled together to keep everyone safe.”
He also noted that Agawam High School was still able to open and administer the SATs on Saturday, and that of the several hundred students who registered for the test, “only 26 were absent.” Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org