WESTERLY — National Grid said it expects to have electricity restored to most local customers by the end of Friday after a powerful Wednesday night storm brought wind, lightning and heavy rain that caused a considerable amount of damage around the region.
Some customers, though, are likely to experience outages into Saturday.
Ted Kresse, director of communications for National Grid in Rhode Island, said crews were working to address "significant issues" in the greater Westerly region that appeared to stem from a transmission line connecting to the substation along Route 216 in Ashaway that was badly damaged, cutting off the power to many in the community.
"Crews spent several hours removing a large tree that had fallen onto those transmission lines this morning and early this afternoon," Kresse said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "We expected that to restore service to a number of customers, but it didn't and we were left to search for other, unknown issues along the line."
The storm left thousands without electricity and spawned debris that forced the closure of dozens of roads in both southwestern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.
Bryce Williams, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norton, Mass., said that while Westerly received approximately 2.3 inches of rainfall and bright lightning, it was the wind that proved to be the most damaging part of the storm.
During the peak of the storm, there were sustained winds in excess of 30 mph with gusts that reached upwards of 65 mph in Westerly at times.
"It seemed to peak around midnight, but the wind didn't calm all that much during the morning hours," he said. "The wind conditions made this something of an ongoing event, even after the rain stopped."
In the dark
The impact of those winds was apparent when residents awoke Thursday morning. National Grid reported that as of 11 a.m., there were an estimated 12,800 service outages in Westerly, representing 88.67% percent of all customers in town. Power was restored to several thousand customers during the day, but there were still more than 7,000 in the dark as of early evening.
In neighboring Charlestown, there were 2,464 outages as of 5 p.m. — higher than at any point during the storm itself — and an additional 1,621 were without electricity in Hopkinton and 1,590 in Richmond as of the end of the business day.
Kresse said the company was challenged by the ongoing winds Thursday, which not only made it difficult to repair services by limiting the ability of electrical crews to safely complete work, but continued to cause damage to trees and send limbs onto transmission lines. The activity caused damage to sections of the line that had already been repaired, and in some cases even caused fresh damage.
"We are trying to be honest with our customers, but for some that means they need to anticipate that this will be a multi-day restoration effort," Kresse said. "We are hopeful that most of the outages with be repaired on Friday but we do anticipate for some it will likely mean the outage is extended into Saturday."
Across state lines in Connecticut, Eversource officials had a more positive outlook on when services would be restored but also warned that progress would be dependent on the winds. Frank Poirot, senior media relations specialist with Eversource in Connecticut, said crews are given the discretion to choose whether to use a bucket truck in high winds, but he noted that safety must remain a top priority.
The company had taken steps to address many of the 40,000 reported outages in Connecticut, but Poirot admitted there was still work to be done in the southeastern portion of the state.
Approximately 35% of North Stonington residents woke up without power and although nearly half of those households were restored by nightfall Thursday, 600 were still without service. Stonington had nearly 3,000 outages at the peak around 3:45 a.m., officials said, and 1,600 were still without power at 5 p.m. Thursday.
No restoration estimates were available late Thursday afternoon, but Poirot said the company hoped that most customers would have their electricity back by early Friday afternoon.
Critical of response
For those in the Westerly area, a promise of quick work did little to stem the frustration. Many took to Facebook and other social media outlets to complain about both the high number of outages in the region and the lack of progress in addressing the issues.
State House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, who represents all of Charlestown and Block Island as well as parts of Westerly and South Kingstown, was critical of the response and questioned how long or how frequently his constituents should be expected to live without electrical services.
“Once again, many of our residents and businesses are going to be impacted by power outages, possibly for days," he said in a press release. "The Chariho School District, and the Westerly School District, and even classes at URI, have been canceled. Many businesses are closed. Our elderly and infirm are without power. It is time for National Grid to restore power to our residents today — and take action so that it is a dependable resource in the future.”
He also questioned the cost of electric bills in the state at a time that many are experiencing disruption in services so frequently, due in part to what he believes is a lack of proper tree-trimming and maintenance.
“The Public Utilities Commission needs to hold National Grid accountable for this lack of a reasonable preparedness and establish proactive measures to make sure we’re protected in the future; and the House Oversight Committee should hold everyone’s feet to the fire,” he said.
Thou shall not pass
The damage extended well beyond electrical services. Damaged lines and closed roads led Westerly, Chariho, Stonington and North Stonington schools to all close for the day. Westerly Library remained closed and, despite efforts to open, even McQuade's Marketplace on Main Street eventually had to lock its doors.
Westerly police said officers were stationed at several traffic lights that were not working throughout the day Thursday as a result of the outages, including along Route 1 and in areas near downtown. The initial storm also caused minor flooding along shoreline roads, where residents reported that high tide wreaked havoc Wednesday evening, but police said most of those roads were clear by mid-day Thursday.
Michael O'Farrell, director of public relations for Westerly Hospital, said the facility was without electricity from just before midnight on Wednesday until Thursday afternoon. The hospital was able to shift to generator-based power, and aside from minor adjustments such as rescheduling elective surgeries, it was business as usual.
He praised the efforts of the hospital's staff, many of which he noted live in the area and were likely without power themselves.
"We are grateful to be blessed with a dedicated staff. Many of them live here, in parts of town that are having greater issues, and they all showed up and remained dedicated to the community even when there were reasons to focus on their own issues at home," O'Farrell said.
To assist residents, the town also opened a warming and charging station at the Westerly Senior Center Thursday to assist residents who needed a place to recharge electronic devices or get out of the wind. The center would be open again Friday based on need, officials said.
In neighboring towns, including Hopkinton, Richmond and Charlestown, public works crews worked throughout the day to clear blocked roads.
"There are still several roads which are impassible because of of fallen trees," Hopkinton police said in a late-morning post on Facebook. "North Road, Clarks Falls Road, Tomaquag Road, and Woody Hill Road all have complete blockages at some point. There is also a large amount of debris on the roads which are open."
Charlestown police reported similar conditions in their community, with Carolina Back Road, Kings Factory Road and West Beach Road all closed at points due to downed trees and power lines. Several other roads also had a large amount of debris that needed to be removed.
Police in Stonington reported issues as well, and one problem area throughout the day was Pequot Trail. Wind gusts of more than 50 mph caused trees limbs to sever, taking out electrical wires and leaving the road impassible. There were at least four reported responses along Pequot Trail for impassible conditions through the course of the day, officials said.
For those in North Stonington, the storm caused issues for emergency services as well. The town's 911 system remained intact, but for several hours Thursday the outages left the non-emergency lines at the Center for Emergency Services not functioning, leading the company to provide alternative contact options via Facebook. Those phone services were restored later in the day, however.
An end in sight
Strong winds made for challenges on Thursday, but Williams, the meteorologist, said the upcoming forecast should provide more hope for area residents.
The low-pressure system was already beginning to move away from the region by Thursday afternoon, which Williams said was expected to have a calming effect on the wind. Sustained winds of 25 mph were expected to be more like a breeze by midnight, and gusts Friday weren't expected to get anywhere near the 55 mph they reached on Thursday.
"When the wind dies down, it'll bring an end to the damage and make addressing issues a lot more manageable for those working on lines or removing debris," Williams said.
Both Kresse and Poirot said once the winds die down, their companies have hundreds of crews ready to help in fixing damage and getting the lights turned back on.
Efforts Thursday focused on high priority areas that included hospitals, government services and those with specific media needs, but both said the attention would then turn to restoring as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.
"It's difficult to predict ... restoration unfortunately is not an exact science," Kresse said. "We have crews working around the clock and will continue to do so until everything is restored."
At the height of the storm, winds gusted to as high as 90 mph on Cape Cod, where about 200,000 residents lost power.
The storm left nearly 200,000 people without power in Maine, too. Heavy rain combined with 60 mph wind gusts knocked down trees and power lines, the Maine Emergency Management Agency said, advising residents to look for hazards on Thursday because many roads were unsafe.
In Portland, Maine, the atmospheric pressure at sea level — an indicator of the strength of a storm — was the lowest ever recorded in October, said William Watson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Maine.
Nine boats were tossed ashore in Rockland, Maine, and a pier suffered some damage, said Sarah Flink, executive director of Cruise Maine.
The nor'easter formed off New Jersey, strengthening as it traveled north. New York authorities said a wind-driven fire destroyed three houses in the Fire Island hamlet of Ocean Bay Park early Thursday. No injuries were reported.
Train delays, power outages and school cancellations were reported throughout the region Thursday morning. Leaves and debris that littered roads created a slippery traffic hazard for commuters.
Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Massachusetts, said the storm system met the definition of "bombogenesis."
Storm intensity is measured by central pressure— the lower the pressure, the stronger it is. A storm is considered a "bomb" when the pressure drops rapidly.
"That's why we ended up with strong, sustained winds and wind gusts," Buttrick said. "It's an indicator of an extremely powerful storm and not something to ignore."
Buttrick forecast that the storm would continue traveling north and northeast, reaching north of Nova Scotia by Friday morning.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.