It took Superstorm Sandy and the blizzards that followed to initiate a common sense approach to preventive measures when it comes to storm damage and utility infrastructure.
Something as simple as tree cutting and pruning, something we had called for after other storms left whole neighborhoods without power because of a bad limb, became a focal point after Sandy. But we have to ask now: did the utilities get bored with that project? We can’t recall seeing bucket trucks and tree crews in recent years the way we did after the realization that this simple strategy could save so much frustration on the part of customers — and cost on the part of utilities.
This past weekend’s storm was a little like Sandy in that it became a hybrid — coming in advertised as a nor’easter but dishing out hurricane force winds through much of the period from Sunday evening through most of Monday. The timing also was uncanny, with the storm striking on the five-year anniversary of Sandy’s assault. As an aside, it made for an interesting time in the newsroom. Breaking news reporter Jason Vallee was posting a live storm story while we were simultaneously publishing the first few stories in our Superstorm Sandy anniversary series.
With leaves still on the trees, the soaking rain and strong, sustained winds made tree damage the primary challenge and flooding a secondary concern. Minor power outages in nor’easters are common, but places like North Stonington were showing outage percentages of 75 percent and more. And in Stonington, more than 50 percent of customers lost power. Many expressed surprise at the widespread nature of the outages and the duration of the power loss. More than 30,000 customers were still without power across Rhode Island as of Wednesday afternoon.
We get that Monday’s continued high winds, even as the sun poked out on occasion, challenged workers and posed safety risks that kept the bucket truck crews grounded longer than National Grid and Eversource — and customers — would have liked. But again, we have to wonder how so many areas were allowed to be so exposed to utility loss by downed trees after such a concentrated effort to eliminate these scenarios in the years after Sandy and those blizzards.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has called for an investigation into National Grid’s readiness and response to the storm, perhaps after feeling pressure herself from constituents. Maybe states need to step in and devote more dollars to taking out trees that threaten utility lines along their rights of way. Perhaps even eminent domain might be considered in extreme cases if trees on private land pose a threat to lines that serve a significant number of properties.
This kind of expense has to pale in comparison to overtime pay and the kind of costs associated with emergency responses for utilities and local first responders. Utilities, states and municipal governments should attack this situation in a coordinated manner to share expenses and resources. Such an effort likely would reduce costs for utilities and government while providing improved service. All of this would reduce customer frustration — and potentially hazardous conditions — and that’s really the bottom line isn’t it?