Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Snowtober: Covering Amherst 100% (eventually)

Well, at any rate: 37% with power and 63% without on Halloween; 65% with power and 35% without by November 2; 98% with power and 2% (278 households) without on November 5; 99% restored by November 7. Then, finally, 100%.

Anyway, we survived Snowtober, the Snowpocalypse—whatever one wants to call the unexpected and disastrous early snowstorm.

To be sure, there was much frustration and anger: most of it directed against the utility company, Western Mass. Electric (WMECO), less (though still a fair amount) directed at the Town, in the sense of Town departments and elected officials. (At least one irate resident stormed into Town Hall, announcing that she would "remember" us, come election time.)

Restoration of electrical power, we should make clear, was indeed a matter entirely in the hands of the utility companies. Town staff and government were responsible for emergency services for residents, though as the crisis wore on, we did try to remind WMECO of particular needs and priorities.

It's no fun being the target of abuse, especially when you yourself are in the same boat with the person doing the complaining. Just for the record (in case anyone is wondering): your Select Board and administrators suffered along with you after the lights went out on Saturday, October 29. Select Board member Alisa Brewer was evidently the first to get power back, on Tuesday. Town Manager John Musante, although he lives in a modern development with underground electrical cables in northern Amherst, was without power until Wednesday, as was Select Board member Aaron Hayden, in rural South Amherst. Select Board member Diana Stein, in central Amherst, found that her lights came back on by that evening. Meanwhile, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, although she, like Ms. Brewer, lives near the University, was without electricity through Thursday. Our power came back only on Friday. For good measure, both John Musante's wife and mine celebrated their birthdays in the cold and dark (though not together as they did last year).

We can therefore empathize with the residents who felt frustrated or ignored.

I myself certainly felt frustrated. It's not terribly reassuring to learn that 99% of your town has power back, when you are still in the 1% without. I live in a semi-rural area at the far northern end of Amherst (the traditional "dirty hands district"): what is more, in one of a stretch of houses that, by some quirk of wiring layout, is both distinct from its neighbors and more prone to outages. Whenever we have an unusually heavy snow or an ice storm, we know that, soon after we hear the pine branches start to crack, one of them will hit the wires, which we will learn , because the transformer will go out with a bang, and the house will go dark. Whenever there is a winter weather emergency, our neighborhood is among the first to lose power and (because it is either unknown or less important to the repair crews) the last to get it back. It has been a source of constant frustration over the years.

Part of the problem—or complication—was that, when the storm hit and power began to fail, WMECO decided to kill power to the entire town, in order to deal with the crisis more systematically and rationally.  A hierarchy was established, and main lines were gradually restored, after which side lines were carefully tested for safety and brought back, one stretch at a time. The process was slow because Department of Public Works crews, eventually assisted by others, had to clear fallen trees branches from roadways and and carefully remove them from snagged or downed electrical lines.

Part of the frustration derived from the fact that, although the system was rational from the standpoint of WMECO, it was not necessarily so from the standpoint of the customer.  I myself was disappointed (but not very surprised) to come home on Wednesday evening and see most of North Amherst, from the Center north along Montague Road, lit up, only to find that nearby houses just to the south and north of us had electricity whereas our little group was still in the dark (and would remain so for another two days).  For some reason, as Ms. Brewer's neighbors did not fail to note, she had power back before they did. Power was restored on the central portion of the Hampshire College campus by Wednesday, but the buildings along Route 116--which one would have thought would be part of a main line restored early--got power later. And some Amherst residents just across the street, east of Route 116, did not get power back until Saturday.

What looks rational to WMECO looks a lot less rational to the person sitting in the cold and dark, gazing covetously at the warm yellow glow emanating from the windows of a neighboring house. It might (as in politics) be worth weighing the benefits of absolute and abstract rationality against those of popular satisfaction and a reasonable share of the greater good. That is: how much is objectively gained and subjectively lost by adhering to such a rigid policy? Might not more, overall, be gained by restoring power to entire neighborhoods at the same time? After all, it is not as if utility companies and other established agents of power and wealth enjoy particularly high public esteem these days.

As the days dragged on and everyone else seemed to have power, I finally tweeted on Thursday night that we were getting desperate and could not hold out much longer:

That seems to have done the trick:

 WMECO took it all in the proper spirit:

All's well that ends well, I guess.

On balance—again, though some residents may not feel that way—we actually did reasonably well. I was not part of the emergency team handling the crisis, but I know from the regular reports that Town Manager John Musante and Acting Town Manager/Director of Conservation and Development Dave Ziomek sent us, as well as Select Board agenda meetings and periodic personal visits to Town Hall, that the team worked around the clock with real determination, considering all eventualities, noting complaints and problems. For example, the Town opened the homeless shelter two days ahead of schedule and arranged to transport other Amherst residents in need to the Red Cross shelter in Northampton. The Department of Public Works soon sought help from private contractors in order to expedite removal of fallen trees and branches. The Town set up power strips in the public areas of the Police Station so that residents could charge cell phones and laptops. And when—despite the arrival of additional electrical crews from Louisiana—the outage dragged on for more than a few days, the Town began compiling lists of addresses and residences still without power, in order to be sure that they were on WMECO's action list and had not simply been overlooked or forgotten. The Fire Department sent volunteers to check on people in outlying areas lacking power and cut off by downed trees and wires. Unlike some of the neighboring towns, where four people died, Amherst suffered no fatalities or serious injuries.

Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a very prosperous community less than half our size, went longer without power. And if you want to hear from some really unhappy campers, let me put you in touch with my tweeps in Connecticut, who did not get power back until the end of the second weekend.

This is not to say that the response was perfect, by any means. There is always room for improvement, and each crisis reveals lacks and gaps. For instance, Town Hall had no emergency generator. We had discussed and then deferred such a request at the Joint Capital Planning Committee (although, as Town Manager Musante pointed out at a recent Select Board meeting, even if we had recommended the purchase, the funding would not have been appropriated in time and the equipment thus would not have been available before the storm). But you can bet that it will be in the next budget proposal.  On balance, we think the Departments of Public Works, Fire, and Police did an admirable job of coping with the crisis, under the circumstances.

An informal web/Facebook survey at MassLive produced a compelling list of likes and dislikes of the emergency response in local towns. In our case:

Like: Town Manager John Musante posted daily messages to the home page of the town website, including listing information such as impassable streets. The town established a special email address to allow residents to report where power was out; emails were used to compile a list for Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

Dislike: The list of blocked streets noted that even many open streets were limited to one lane and were dangerous at night. An online mechanism allowing residents to share their own observations about problematic areas could have helped the Department of Public Works focus efforts and assist drivers to find detours.
That strikes me as a reasonable assessment. In fact, we can elaborate on it. There were limits as to what we (as distinct from the utilities) could do to change the situation. Where we arguably could stand the most improvement was thus in the area of communication. Even here, we had a good basis: Town Information Technology kept things up and running (and our servers are located far out of state, so they were not affected). Emergency updates from the Town Manager via so-called "reverse 911" emergency calls and emails worked well. The problem was: those of us who have cordless phones served by broadband providers (as I do) were out of luck: no Comcast cable service. I happen to have a smartphone, but (1) not everyone does; (2) not everyone who does signed up for alerts via cell phone; and (3) even those of us who had them found it difficult to charge them in the early days. We did not make use of radio as a prime means of communication (though it should be noted that some stations, such as the local NPR affiliate, were temporarily also without power). And as the respondents noted, we should also take into account the desire for two-way communication, and incorporation of ongoing public feedback.

We are also still eager to have feedback about the recent incident: Residents can address it to: (and of course to the usual organs of Town government).

On balance, then, we are generally satisfied with the response, even as we perform our postmortems and attempt to improve the response next time. To the extent that we enumerate our accomplishments, it is not in order to deflect criticism, and rather, simply in order to put the situation in perspective: things were not perfect, but they could have been much worse. Given what we have been through this year—tornado, hurricane, and blizzard—we came through better than expected.

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