RICHMOND — Department of Public Works Director Scott Barber told the Town Council Tuesday that he had to take drastic action to get National Grid to begin making repairs in Richmond after the storm of Oct. 29-30.
Barber, who is also the Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief, said that by late Sunday of the storm, it was apparent that the damage was more extensive than expected. Barber said he received no updates from National Grid, and no one returned his calls. “The lack of response by the National Grid seemed to irritate a lot of people, including myself,” he said.
Barber said that when downed trees are in direct contact with power lines, only National Grid is permitted to touch them. High winds made it unsafe to use bucket trucks.
The priority for the DPW, he said, was ensuring access and evacuation routes for emergencies. “During the storm, we would continue to assess these areas for accessibility, whether it was just by a small passenger vehicle, or if other vehicles could get through,” he said. “That continued right into late Monday evening.”
Using a special emergency phone number, Barber’s department provided National Grid with regular updates on outages in the town, but by Tuesday afternoon, with thousands of residents still without power, Barber — whose department won praise from the council — said he still had not seen a single repair truck.
“We did not see one response from National Grid as far as a bucket truck or line work or any tree crews assigned,” he said. “It becomes frustrating to us not to be able to complete our tasks, because once they do assign crews, they remove the trees off the lines and we have to get it out of the road. It’s got to be a coordinated effort, and that coordination just didn’t happen.”
For the past several months, as a courtesy, the town has allowed a tree trimming company under contract to National Grid to stage its trucks in the DPW yard. Barber decided to use those trucks to pry a response from National Grid.
“To gain some leverage on National Grid, Wednesday morning, I prevented their crews from leaving our yard until I heard from National Grid,” he said. “I didn’t hold anybody hostage...I just felt that we needed to get some attention from National Grid.” Barber said that after he locked the gates of the yard with the vendor’s trucks inside, he immediately began receiving calls from the utility. “My phone, it was like dialing for dollars,” he said. “All the lines were lit for an hour.”
Barber said he felt he had to act. “At that point, I figured what the heck. What’s a night in jail,” he said. “During previous events, National Grid would operate on what they would call a strike team type of response with assigned resources to each town, and for some reason they didn’t do that with this storm.”
Some neighborhoods, such as K.G. Ranch Road, were cut off by fallen trees lying across the road. Former Town Council President Henry Oppenheimer, a resident of that road, wrote a letter of complaint to the state utilities commission, saying National Grid had disregarded the town’s repair priority list, which the utility itself had requested.
Oppenheimer said if National Grid continues to prioritize cities, then rural towns should get a rate cut. “The fact is little was done in Washington County the first three days versus the other counties. So we should get a 25 percent rate discount,” he said.