Among the challenges to snowstorm restoration are near-white-out conditions and impassable roads.

Record Snowfall Brings a Flurry of Activity

Aug. 25, 2015
Boston set a record with nearly 100 inches of snow in the span of a three-week period.

It all started on a relatively quiet January weekend. The talk of Boston at the time was what would come to be known as Deflategate, a controversy on whether the NFL’s New England Patriots had intentionally deflated the footballs they played with in the first half of their championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots won that game convincingly, in a steady, cold January rain in Foxboro, Massachusetts, U.S.

Two days later, Boston got hit with Winter Storm Juno, spiking some 25 inches of snow in the heart of Beantown. For the next three weeks, snow continued to fall, bookended by Winter Storm Marcus in early February, which dropped an additional 2 ft of snow on the city, by now white, weary, worn and weathered. In all, Boston and its environs experienced a historic snowfall of nearly 100 inches in just one three-week period, for a city that averages only about 50 inches of snow per year. In Boston, the winter of 2014–2015 would go down as the snowiest on record.

It takes more than record snow and the freezing cold to stop today’s utility line workers. Following are the stories of four line workers who battled 2015’s blizzards of Boston on the electric utility front lines.

More than 100 inches of snow in three weeks, with intermittent melting, left Boston-area power lines coated with ice.

Tom Albano, Line Worker

Tom Albano has been working on the front lines for Eversource (formerly Northeast Utilities) since 1998. He currently works in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles  southwest of Boston in a service territory that was spared the record-level snowfall of Boston this past winter. But early on a Monday morning in January, Albano found himself in a convoy of seven bucket trucks barreling down the road to eastern Massachusetts to help his snowed-in Bay State residents to the east. Well, maybe not quite barreling.

“The worst part of the storm was just getting there,” Albano said. “We had to drive 25 mph to 30 mph single file, because only one lane of traffic was open.”

Albano’s crew was not just going to Boston, either. His truck was dispatched to Eastham, more than halfway up the Cape Cod National Seashore. The crew arrived at about 7 p.m., tired and weary from the drive but immediately sent out to patrol lines, Albano recalled.

“It’s dark, cold and snowy out there,” Albano recalled of that night. “You are not as comfortable with the territory as you would be in your own region, and some roads are only barely open. But you go along anyway, that night and the next morning, patrolling to see if wires are down, limbs are on lines, or poles are in trouble.”

A major challenge to storm work is simply access to trouble spots.

“The first place we got to was a good mile off the road,” Albano said of his morning assignment. “Two wires had slapped together in the wind and blown the fuses up. We had to get from the street to the pole and, in normal conditions, that should take maybe 20 minutes. It took us four or five hours just to get to it.”

Wind and snow are the two main power outage culprits, but there are other factors, too.

“You will get a plow that hits some poles every now and then,” Albano said. “For the most part, though, the civilians stay home. In these big storms, hopefully they know better than to be out when there could be downed wires and freezing and melting ice all over the place.”

“The public is usually just great,” Albano added rather quickly.

He recalls an ice storm he worked in 1998 in Canada, where 4 inches of ice-coated lines knocked power out for up to 28 days to farms and homes.

“They’d always come up and say, ‘Glad you guys are here; thanks for the hard work.’ They were baking us bread and coffee, and bringing it out to us in the fields.”

One of the harder parts of storm work is leaving home, Albano added.

“You are always worried about how your significant others are doing,” he noted. “My wife and daughter would be in trouble if the storm is bad back there, and I’m not there to help.”

Storm restoration work is often open-ended, only adding to the stress, Albano continued. “I got called down to Florida to do restoration after a hurricane,” he remembered. “We traveled with 44 bucket trucks all the way across the Pensacola area. We thought we were done in a week, but as soon as we finished in one area, we got hit with more storms and had to stay on longer.”

Albano also talked of being out on storm recovery duty over Christmases and Thanksgiving weekends.

“They always seem to hit on the holidays,” he observed. “I think the general public would be amazed at what we go through and what we do for a living. There are a lot of 24-hour shifts in a lineman’s career.”

That said, Albano sums up storm duty with a prideful comment that could serve as a line worker’s credo: “I always like to tell the guys we bring light to the dark,” he proclaimed.

A line downed by ice often takes several poles out at once.
Service trucks are loaded on a ferry to get to island communities in Massachusetts, racing to beat the approaching snow, ice and wind.

Mike Pierce, Distribution Service Line Worker

Mike Pierce, a distribution service line worker for Eversource, lives and works on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He and his crew were truly in the eye of the storm: Cape Cod not only got pounded with snow, but faced gusty winds recorded at 70 mph to 80 mph.

“That was the most challenging part,” Pierce recalled. “When it is snowing and blowing like that, you really can’t see anything. You have to make a judgment call whether to even try to do too much with a storm at its peak. We have to be very careful, in those conditions, not to make mistakes that might injure or kill us.”

Pierce echoes what fellow line worker Tom Albano said about the stress of being called away from home for storm duty, even when it is right in a line worker’s home region or service territory.

“Right before Juno, I was flipping out about making sure that my wife could get out of the driveway,” Pierce offered. “I was panicking about it. I know that once I leave my house, I don’t know when I am coming home.”

For Juno, Pierce ended up being gone four to five days.

“I was on the Cape but still couldn’t get home; it was that bad,” he recalled. “There was 4 ft of snow on the ground and wind everywhere. People would get stuck in their cars and just leave them to get to a building. It looked like someone just opened up a bucket of broken-down cars and emptied them on the Cape.”

Storm crew workers generally work shifts of 18 hours on, then six hours off, Pierce noted.

“It’s crazy, but the time goes by if you are busy,” he said. “The time goes fast, and you do feel like you are doing a big important thing. I get satisfaction out of helping people out.”

As to how storm work differs from daily tasks, Pierce cites both the difficulty of operating in inclement weather and the difficulty of getting around.

“Not every power line is down a paved street,” he said. “Part of the real challenge is just getting everywhere you need to be. The main thing is you just have to slow down, way down, and make sure you don’t take your mind off of what you are doing. There is the danger of other injuries, like slipping and falling, since everything is covered with snow and ice. You want to work as fast you can to make sure people get their power back, but you also have to take steps back sometimes and take care of yourself.”

Another challenge to storm duty can be lack of familiarity with a new territory.

“When I go out of town, it is more difficult because I know Cape Cod’s system; this is where I work every day,” Pierce explained. “You can tell me pole numbers, and I will know where they are. You can tell me what wires you are looking at, and I’ll know if we need sleeves. When we go to different areas, a lot of it is different. Their stock may be different than ours. Some of the stuff we have they don’t need. Before we go roll to that job, we have to really ask all of the right questions, to make sure we have all the right stock, to make sure we can complete the job.”

Pierce, a 36-year-old line worker who has been with Eversource for the past 10 years, said the longest duration storm restoration he has done was in Maine — a 13-day ice storm about five years ago. He said this past winter was the worst he has ever seen in terms of challenging weather for the Cape Cod region.

“The worst situation I can remember was at the Hyannis Airport,” Pierce regaled. “It is wide open, and the wind and snow was crazy. The parking lot was full of abandoned cars. A recloser blew up and wires were on the ground, and that particular circuit fed one of the biggest hotels in the area, where everyone was staying. It took us probably eight to 10 hours to do what should have been an hour-long job. We had a generator company come in, and the generator got stuck in the parking lot about 50 ft from where it needed to be. The front-end loader couldn’t even get it out. Someone rear-ended a parked truck of ours. It was a long, long day out there in the middle of the storm, in the blowing snow.”

Pierce said conditions were so bad this past winter in Massachusetts, he even felt like he had been transported to another state to the north.

“We’ve had 100 inches of snow in the past three weeks,” Pierce quipped. “I feel like we are living in New Hampshire!”

This substation on Nantucket Island took the brunt of seaside precipitation caused by Winter Storm Juno.

Jon Hall, Overhead Crew Leader

When National Grid saw and heard warnings about a direct hit from Winter Storm Juno, the first thing the utility did was secure crews to keep the lights on in territories within the storm’s projected path. Next, it assigned other crews to places where post-storm power restoration would prove to be even more challenging. One such location was the island of Nantucket, which is just about as far east as one can go and still be in Massachusetts, and literally as far south and far out into the ocean one can go and still be in the Bay State.

Post-storm power restoration in Nantucket had both inherent and situational challenges. On the inherent side, the island is relatively flat, low lying and susceptible to flooding when storms churn up the surrounding Atlantic Ocean — and saltwater is hardly a friend of electrical components.
Next, it sits a good 20 miles to 30 miles from the Massachusetts mainland, meaning any restoration or recovery crews have to be on the island before a storm hits. Ferry crossings in high wind and violent storm conditions are just too dangerous, so if line workers are not on the island before the storm, they certainly cannot get there during a storm, and may even be delayed once the storm has passed.

That is the situation Jon Hall, an overhead crew leader for National Grid in southeastern mainland Massachusetts, found himself in early in the week of January 26.

“We had to make sure we could get our trucks over before the ferry shut down,” Hall said of then-approaching Winter Storm Juno. “But we got across the day before, and somehow they managed to get us into hotels. We thought we were going to be staying in the high school.”

Hall’s crew made it onto the island and bunkered down for the night before the storm. Juno hit the island the next day and hit it hard. National Grid reported more than 13,000 customers lost electric power in the overnight and morning hours of January 27 alone.

The first thing Hall’s crew did that Tuesday morning was meet up with the Nantucket foreman.

“He gave us one-line diagrams from the station outward, so we checked lines and patrolled everything form one apparatus to the next,” Hall reported. “We kept finding wires down and poles down.”

Restoring power in Nantucket is slightly different from restoring power in Hall’s home service territory. “A lot of the island contains these really great, really nice houses, but nobody lives there in the off-season,” he said. “So the first priority is to get the year-round people and businesses back on-line.”

The island also is fed by one main substation, and it just so happened the substation was taken down by the storm. Hall’s crew was not on that substation repair, but they did have to wait for the substation to be put back on-line before distribution restoration efforts could begin.

What also is interesting about the Nantucket restoration is that, as an island community, there is a large number of standby generators attached to both businesses and houses. The island’s sole hospital has one, of course, but so do many of the higher-end residences.

Thus, one challenge for line workers restoring power on Nantucket is to ensure backup or emergency generators do not get in the way. The challenge is exacerbated by just how well-made and how well-functioning a high-end generator can be when hooked up to a US$30 million house.

“If the generators are installed correctly, they run pretty quietly” Hall noted. “We don’t even know they are running. We use live-line sticks to make sure we avoid any feedback.”

All-weather and non-weather-related challenges aside, Hall is proud to report that within two days of Juno heading out to sea, all but 3% of the island was back up. That said, his crew was on the island for eight days total, while other National Grid crews and contractors were on-island for two weeks.

“Unfortunately, it’s not always all over just because the storm is over,” Hall said.

A classic example is the danger of roof collapses. As Hall explained it, large amounts of snow and ice that accumulate during storms — particularly in successive storms like those that hit Massachusetts in January and February — collect on rooftops, melting and refreezing many times over. The result is unsustainable snowpacks on roofs. Again, in the case of Nantucket, many homes in the off-season are unoccupied or watched over by caretakers, who might have their eyes on more than one or several homes. The unexpected and repeated heavy snowfall only added to the problem.

“You cannot even buy an ice rake anywhere in Nantucket,” Hall observed days after the storm. “That means roof collapses are happening daily, and when a roof collapses, we have to cut the power for the firemen to get inside and inspect the structure. We don’t know what the status of the main is in the house, so the only thing you can do is cut power until you know. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.”

What Hall has seen before, though, and saw again on Nantucket Island, was people sincerely appreciate the hard work line workers do to restore power after a storm.

“Every person we talked to thanked us 10 times over,” he said. “So that feels good.”

National Grid crews get a warm send-off from the people of Nantucket.

Ron Conway, Crew Leader

Ron Conway experienced Juno and the successive winter storms of January and February from ground zero for weather-related storm outages — on Nantucket Island itself, where he has served as a crew leader for overhead lines for most of his 32 years at National Grid.

“We are a small platform, with only three crews here, so it was all hands on deck for Juno,” Conway said. “When a storm happens, they really want us staying put, and they bring in crews from other parts of the state, as well as contractors, to help out.”

For Juno, Conway said there was enough advance warning to allow National Grid to get additional personnel onto the island before the ferries shut down the day of the storm.

“When the storm starts, the boats aren’t going to be running,” he explained. “So it’s good we got people here before the storm, because we ended up with ice all over the transformers outside, a big challenge. Ice was covering the bushings. We had a hard time keeping the feeders going.”

Almost immediately, it was clear restoration was going to be a multiday event, Conway said, even with the additional crews brought in to help. He said he even heard the utility used a gas-powered de-icing machine from the airport to de-ice some transformers at the height of the storm.

Eel Point, on the island’s north side, was the hardest-hit area Conway saw. “They are right on the water, and reports there were winds were 70 to 80 mph, with all that wet, thick snow,” he said of Juno’s wrath.

“We wait for the outages,” he said of storm restoration duty. “If a recloser opens up, we would patrol from that recloser out and look for why that recloser operated. If we come across wire down, we open up a device before that and then we could close it in front of the problem area. We cut and clear if the winds aren’t that bad. We don’t fix anything that night unless it’s an easy and obvious fix. We just try to isolate the sections that are down, fix as many as you can. If you can, though, you wait for the storm to pass.

“After the storm, our job is basically to go out and pick up wire that is down,” Conway continued. “We ground it on either side to make sure it is safe for us to work on. We peck away at it, one section at a time, pole to pole, and keep going until each customer is back on.”

Conway said storm duty is essentially 18-hours-on shifts, broken up by six-hour sleep or rest periods.

“There is a lot of night and day working on a storm compared to normal conditions,” he observed. “The wind and snow and ice is hitting you in the face; the conditions are brutal. It is our job so we have got to do it, and we know people are out of power and we want to get them on as soon as possible.”

Conway even admits to unwarranted guilt: “You feel guilty going home after 18 hours,” he sighed. “You wish you could have gotten more people on.”

After a successful storm restoration, though, Conway said guilt quickly melts away and the memories that remain are of having helped people in a time of need.

“The people are awesome and appreciate what you are doing,” he said.

Conway had heard people in a coffee shop downtown were putting extra money in a bowl for the line workers and storm workers to use to buy coffee.

“We never took them up on it, but people were coming in and throwing a dollar in, in appreciation for what we do.”

Conway also has gratitude for his partners in storm restoration, contractors who are called out in the same harsh weather conditions to clear access to downed wires and poles so the line workers can fix them.

“The contractors come out with their front-end loaders, and they basically lay the path for us,” Conway explained. “Then they hang out there for a bit to make sure the line crew doesn’t get stuck. Thank God for the contractors who help us get to where we need to get to. They do a great job keeping us going and helping us keep moving.”

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