Hive of activity, storm center is eerily quiet

The Cranston Herald ·

The National Grid Emergency Operation Center –“the Storm Room” – was like the eye of a hurricane Saturday afternoon.

It had power, although that wasn’t the case for about 100,000 customers statewide at about 2:30 p.m. It was warm and it was eerily quiet considering the wind was still blowing a steady 30 mph with gusts up to the 50s.

By mid-morning Monday power had been restored to all but 10,000 customers. With more than 300 line crews and 100 forestry crews in the field, National Grid spokesman Ted Kresse said most of those still out of power – there were 730 in Warwick – would have power restored by 11 p.m. Monday. He expected full restoration by sometime Tuesday.

Kresse said the utility is keeping a close eye on the next storm forecast for Wednesday. More wind and heavy wet snow is of concern. He said that contracted line crews that were called in for the Friday storm would remain in Rhode Island for the Wednesday storm.

The wind and its duration, more than the rain, is what caused problems for National Grid and Rhode Islanders. With hurricane-force conditions that refused to subside, National Grid crews couldn’t repair downed wires and poles. It wasn’t safe.

Two downed utility poles in Warren were critical links to power outages in the East Bay extending from East Providence to Bristol. However, crews were grounded until the winds abated and even then, by Saturday afternoon, it was less than ideal. It was dangerous.

“The wind was blowing off their hard hats,” reported Tim Horan, National Grid president and COO for Rhode Island, from his third-floor office on Melrose Street. At its peak, Horan said 150,000 of Grid’s 500,000 Rhode Island customers were without power. No municipality was spared. The rain softened the ground, enabling the wind to uproot trees. And, despite the October storm where 144,000 customers lost power, which cleaned out many weakened trees and dead wood, limbs brought down hundreds of lines.

While large sections of Warwick lost power from falling limbs and trees, Mayor Scott Avedisian thought earlier storms had cleaned out a lot of the deadwood. He said the city’s first responders and the Department of Public Works handled the situation well. As was done during the October storm, he said residents should place storm debris at the curb and it would be collected.

“Very few areas escaped the wrath of the storm,” said Horan.

In Horan’s book, it was one of the worst storms National Grid has had to face. Many storm center veterans agreed.

Steve Bienvenue, supervisor of the wires down room, looked up at a whiteboard with hundreds of addresses. Facing the boards were rows of people with computers and answering phones, like a scene from a telethon. Only instead of recording donations for a worthy cause, they were fielding calls from neighborhoods without power and gaining specifics of downed wires. That information was then checked against earlier calls to determine if this could be a new downed wire.

By Saturday afternoon Bienvenue estimated the crew had answered about 4,700 wires down calls. That is comparable to the October storm, only in this case the calls were still coming in.

“We’re equal to that if not more,” he said.

Horan said National Grid was ready for this storm. He said 240 contractor crews of two to three personnel each augmented National Grid’s 60 crews. The contracted crews came up from Richmond, Va., Elliott, Ky. and other locations. In addition, National Grid had 84 forestry crews clearing felled trees and branches. Grid stockpiled utility poles, wire and other components at various locations in the state, including the Knight Campus of CCRI that served municipalities in the center of the state.

Apart from the downed wires room, a crew of four maintained communications with municipal first responders and a running list of outages by municipality. Nate Kocon, who coordinated the task force teams, like other Grid personnel working the center, have other jobs when not faced with a storm. Kocon works in the “gas end” as the manager of the “my community gas group.”

Each of the nine task force teams is comprised of two or three personnel accompanied by a retired overhead lineman whose experience is critical to assessing the situation and safely directing personnel. Their job, explains Kocon, is to “cut, clear and make it safe.”

In cases where a live wire is down, a Grid employee is stationed to stand watch and divert traffic and people from what could be a lethal situation.

Safety first

In addition, the municipal center requests a listing of the “top five” trouble spots from local fire and police so that they prioritize cleanup and restoration efforts. While it would seem the effort would be to restore power to the greatest number of customers first, Kresse pointed out initial concerns focus on safety and the priority may be getting live wires off a thoroughfare such as West Shore Road in Warwick as opposed to replacing a downed utility pole responsible for the loss of power to an entire neighborhood.

Lynn Moore of Cranston and Alice Fourihan of Warwick each faced a computer screen of municipal hot spots. Phones were at their sides and they were prepared to answer questions from the field.

Predictably, they also received calls on their personal phones from friends and relatives looking for the “inside scoop” on when they might have power restored and even suggesting they could speed things up. That’s hardly unique. This is Rhode Island, and everybody knows somebody. Many of those working in the center said they had had similar requests.

Fourihan said her sister called about 6 p.m. on Friday asking her to do what she could to restore her power.

What did Fourihan advise?

“I told her to go to bed.”

The full scope of the storm’s impact was clear in the coastal and capital rooms of the center. Grid has divided the state into the coastal communities and those centered by Providence that make up the capital region. In addition to individual computers, each room is equipped with a giant screen of the area that is broken down into hundreds of blocks. Each block is colored depending on the extent of service. Green blocks represent full service. Yellow ones are indicative of partial outages. Orange ones have a greater number of outages, and red ones are entirely without power. There were few green areas Saturday afternoon. Those manning the computers could zoom in on specific blocks gaining names of roads and neighborhoods.

Next in the line of rooms was the one surely of the greatest interest to homeowners and businesses – the repair room. Jack Vaz was one of half a dozen logging calls from repair crews. As Vaz noted, the list was growing on Saturday – a good thing – and would continue to grow.