Communication key to storm response, officials say

Last modified: 12/1/2014 1:29:01 PM
At 3:04 p.m. Tuesday, Public Service of New Hampshire tweeted: “We’re getting ready for the season’s 1st snowstorm.” The advisory included a phone number to call for outages.

At 10:10 a.m. the following day, shortly before the snow started to fall, Unitil posted a link about a winter storm advisory, with “#stormprep #safety.”

By yesterday afternoon, the utilities had sent more than a combined 175 tweets. That number doesn’t include Facebook posts, customer calls, text messages, press releases or other means of communication with customers.

This level of outreach was unheard of during the state’s largest outage ever – the December 2008 ice storm that knocked out power for more than 400,000 people, many for up to two weeks. Three days after the state’s fourth-largest power outage Wednesday evening, Unitil predicted its customers would be online by last night. PSNH announced yesterday most of its customers would have lights on again by today, almost 24 hours ahead of schedule.

So only a handful customers could still be in the dark tomorrow, from the fourth-largest outage New Hampshire has ever experienced. Both utility companies and local officials said technology and experience have improved the response to a major storm event like this one.

“Our philosophy as an organization is to learn from every single storm,” Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara said. “So every one of those weather events, our goal is to take something away from it and add to our restoration efforts to try and continue to grow and improve.”

After the 2008 ice storm, for example, O’Meara said the company hired a director who would work specifically on large-scale restoration efforts like that one.

When a February 2010 wind storm took out power for more than 340,000 people across the state, Unitil redesigned its website with a real-time outage map. “Snowtober” of October 2011 knocked out power for more than 300,000 people, and that storm was Unitil’s first experiment with Twitter.

This year, more than 200,000 customers from both major utilities lost their power in the hours before Thanksgiving Day. This year was also the inaugural storm event for Unitil’s Facebook page.

In an age of smart phones, O’Meara said the company has relied heavily on social media and the internet to get out information.

“It’s not just things we’ve done, it’s kind of how communication has changed over the past six years,” O’Meara said.

At PSNH, spokeswoman Lauren Collins said the company had been preparing for a storm like this one.

“We did a storm drill earlier this month, a little more than a week before this happened,” she said. “It was very fresh in our minds.”

Certain personnel, such as tree crews and damage assessors, are the first out of the gate from PSNH, Collins said. The line crews follow, with a better sense of where the problem areas are and what prep work has already been done for their repairs. With 25,000 PSNH customers still out of power as of yesterday afternoon, Collins said she understood their frustration.

“A lot of the guys that are out there in the field don’t have power. . . . My house is still dark, and thankfully I have a generator, but that’s getting pretty old,” she said.

But she and others at PSNH have worked to keep everyone informed about their process; for example, the PSNH account tweeted a video Friday about how the utility restores power to customers. They have also added a town-by-town schedule for restorations.

“There’s been a very deliberate approach to bringing everybody on as quickly as possible,” Collins said.

Concord fire Chief Dan Andrus has worked mostly with Unitil, the primary utility in Concord. Between Thursday and Friday, Andrus said he participated in four conference calls with the utility service and other local officials.

He remembered starting his job in Concord in June 2008, just a few months before the state’s worst power outage ever.

“They’re leagues better than they were in 2008,” he said.

Once Unitil and PSNH restore power to all of their customers, both will evaluate their efforts and feedback from customers to improve further. But for some homeowners and business owners, the lessons are already clear.

At Aubuchon Hardware on South Main Street, employee Dan Cochrane said customers came in before the storm for the basics: shovels, ice melt. Now, they’re looking for gas cans and propane. They’re calling, asking if the store carries generators.

“We did, but we’re out of them,” Cochrane said. “We sold the last one this morning.”

But when the power is back on, Cochrane said customers aren’t necessarily thinking ahead to the next storm.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and it seems like a lot of people think it’s not going to happen,” Cochrane said.

Deb and Randy Barnes, owners of Wellington’s Marketplace in downtown Concord, certainly didn’t think they would spend Thanksgiving shuffling gouda from one cooler to the next. But when their landlord, Mark Ciborowski, called early Thursday to tell them power was out at the North Main Street store, they rushed to the cheese case with a portable generator from their neighbor.

The power went back on about 4 or 5 a.m. Friday morning, they guessed. And like Unitil and PSNH, the Barneses are already brainstorming about communication during the next storm. As they stood in the store between helping customers Friday, they suggested Wellington’s could circulate a message about the outage through Intown Concord to alert other businesses next time. Then other shops that lost merchandise could take their own precautions during the blackout, as their store did.

“You do what you have to do to save the cheese,” Deb Barnes said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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