EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 31, 2012

Cleanup, restoration efforts in high gear across Merrimack Valley

By Bill Kirk bkirk@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — ANDOVER — The high-pitched scream of chainsaws could be heard throughout the Merrimack Valley yesterday, as tree crews toiled alongside National Grid workers and public works personnel to free wires and restore electricity to thousands of customers.

By many accounts, the response to Hurricane Sandy, renamed Superstorm Sandy, was a marked improvement over last year’s much-maligned answer to Hurricane Irene and the late-October snowstorm, both of which left many people in the dark for days.

“They are much speedier this year,” said Marc Donvito of 46 Linwood St., as he watched electrical contractors tack powerlines onto two, new utility poles on Haverhill Street/Route 133 in Andover. A rotted oak tree in front of 87 Haverhill St. fell, tearing down two utility poles as it thundered to the ground around 4:15 p.m. Monday. “You’ve got to give them credit for that.”

Linwood Street, a block or so away, was affected by the outage created by the big oak’s collapse on Haverhill Street, as were numerous other streets in the area. Yesterday statewide, 300,000 people were without power, with about 3,300 of them in Andover.

“The ice storm was much worse,” he said, referring to the December 2008 storm that cut power to millions of people and plunged New York and New England into a cold dark week or two without power.

Indeed, many in Massachusetts, including Gov. Deval Patrick, said Massachusetts lucked out.

“We feel very fortunate there have been no reports of serious injury, no reports of serious infrastructure damage,” Patrick said in a news conference at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency bunker in Framingham yesterday. He said there are no places in Massachusetts with “devastation,” and said he is cognizant that the state’s outcome might have been different if Sandy had not veered off to pound the coasts of New York and New Jersey. At least 18 people were killed in the storm in seven states, according to the Associated Press.

“I’m relieved, that’s for sure,” Patrick said. “When you remember, and we do, the course of the hurricane before two days ago, 18 hours ago, when it took a left turn and started west. And when you consider the places that were on that new course and what the impact has been there, then we are very, very fortunate indeed.”

Patrick said that utilities now have a chance to prove that their response is improved over the two storms in August and October of last year.

“The daylight is out, the wind is down,” Patrick said, adding, “now it’s time for them to perform. We’ll just have to see how that goes.”

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid Massachusetts, said in a telephone news conference yesterday that the first part of the day yesterday was spent on damage assessment, followed by restoration efforts. By 3 p.m., she said, more than 60,000 people had their power restored.

“We are happy with the hard work our employees at National Grid are doing,” she said. “They are working hard and we are optimistic. They are making very good progress.”

She added, however, that there will be “extended outages. We’ll go to bed tonight and we’ll still have a number that’s greater than zero.”

She agreed that the response to this year’s storm is improved over last year.

She said one of the main reasons is that the company has placed community liaisons in city and town halls across the state to work closely with public officials to coordinate the response to the storm.

“There is now a single point of contact in that city or town, managing their priority list with ours, pairing up tree crews and line crews,” she said. “The town officials are our eyes.”

She said National Grid is also making better use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to get the word out to customers about restoration efforts.

But for those people still without power yesterday, it was a waiting game.

“Last night, they told us we’d get power back by noon (Tuesday),” said Mark Vieira of Whittemore Terrace, Andover. “But my wife heard this morning it might not be until tomorrow (Wednesday).”

Generator comes in handy

Over in Ballardvale, Rick Field of 41 Tewksbury St. was waiting for someone from the town or the power company to come out and remove the tree that fell on the street in front of his house.

“I looked out the window, I didn’t hear anything, I just saw the tree come down on the wires,” he said, noting that the worst of the storm seemed to hit about 3:30 p.m. on Monday. “Some company came (Tuesday) and cut up the tree and the wires snapped back up, except for one.”

That was the wire that provided power to his house and several others in the neighborhood.

“I have a generator, it runs the fridge, TV and some lights,” he said. “It’s come in handy the last couple of years.”

He said he wasn’t sure who was responsible for the fallen tree, because it was on the property line between his and his neighbor’s property. Town workers had placed barrels in the street so that vehicles could easily pass by using one lane to get around the fallen tree limbs. It appears that the trunk was rotten.

That may have been the cause of a number of downed trees.

David Penner, of 80 Haverhill St., Andover, said he had been keeping his eye on a rotting oak tree across the street from his house, just a few yards down the street from the one that fell.

“I wasn’t as worried about this tree as that one,” he said, pointing to a blackened, leafless oak which he said has been dead for at least two years. “I’m going down to pay my taxes today, maybe I’ll mention this to someone.”

Donvito, of Linwood Terrace, said the town has been pretty good at identifying and removing old trees, but that many of the maples planted in his subdivision 50 years ago are ready to be taken down, or at least be inspected.

Trees were down all over the Merrimack Valley, leading to traffic and power troubles for many.

Dozens of trees down in Methuen

In Methuen, according to Public Works Director Ray DiFiore, there were about 50 trees down as of midday yesterday, and 10 streets blocked. Tree crews were cutting up the trees, with the assistance of two, private tree-cutting contractors. The disaster even left City Hall in the dark, with a generator providing enough juice to power phones and some computers, but little else.

DiFiore said a skeleton crew of department heads, mayor’s staff and public works employees were taking care of business as best they could, with all non-essential employees sent home at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, as a service to residents, the city’s landfill will stay open for extended hours through Saturday so people can drop off yard waste and tree debris. The landfill will be open until 5 p.m. all week. There were about 3,000 customers without power in Methuen as of midday yesterday.

Lawrence police and fire departments reported no major problems overnight. There were still spotty power outages throughout the city and other cases, where actual electrical boxes that were ripped off homes needed to be reinstalled by electricians.

“Things are actually in pretty good shape ... Things lined up pretty well for us,” said Fire Chief Jack Bergeron.

Even in the midst of the storm, the fire department was able to cope with an emergency situation when a fire broke out at 34 Juniper St.

The single-alarm fire was quickly extinguished by a person living in the multi-family home. The cause of the 7 p.m. fire remained under investigation yesterday by Lawrence Fire Capt. Robert Wilson and the state fire marshal’s office, Bergeron said.

Unable to get to work

Michael Tremblay, of 87 Haverhill St., North Andover, was unable to go to work yesterday because his driveway was still blocked byb a 100 year old oak tree that toppled bringing down two utility poles between 5:30-6 p.m. Monday.

He said he heard a “thump or a bang and saw a couple of huge flashes.”

“And voila,” he said, the tree, which he estimated to be at least 100 years old, was sprawled across his yard and driveway. Tremblay picked up a piece of rotten wood near the base of the tree and easily broke it with his hands.

“That’s what was holding it up,” he said. Before Hurricane Sandy, Tremblay said he had called the town, urging that the tree be removed.

“You couldn’t have picked a better spot,” he said, noting the tree missed his house as well as cars parked in the driveway. By late yesterday morning, National Grid had replaced the two poles, but the tree, sawed into several huge chunks, was still there.

Reporters Jill Harmacinski and Paul Tennant contributed to this report.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.