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Storm recovery upsets Norwich Public Utilities cost-cutting efforts

Norwich — Faced with revenue losses of nearly $1 million per month during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norwich Public Utilities was grateful for a calm spring and early summer that allowed the utility to cut expenses by 14%, slash overtime costs and delay some capital expenses.

Tropical Storm Isaias ended that track record, with utility crews working 16-hour shifts, roughly from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., repairing downed wires, replacing or repairing damaged utility poles and transformers and mutual aid from Massachusetts public power companies and one retired former NPU foreman called in to help. NPU also has hired private contractors to assist with smaller, individual service restoration Wednesday and Thursday.

“Our top priority is to restore power for our customers,” NPU General Manager Chris LaRose said. “We will be paying overtime for this, but that is overtime that’s well worth it, and that’s what our customers expect.”

LaRose said the city utility could get some relief from the costs now that Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, allowing the state to seek reimbursement for some storm-related expenses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said NPU would reimburse the Massachusetts utilities' for the cost of the crews, and NPU would seek reimbursement from FEMA through the disaster declaration process.

During the peak outage, 6,500 NPU customers were without power, with heavy damage in the Taftville, Greeneville, West Side and Yantic Lane areas. Citywide, 15 utility poles — some owned by Frontier — were damaged and needed repair or replacement. At least a few transformers needed to be replaced.

NPU reported that 4,000 remained without power Wednesday morning. By the end of work Wednesday, NPU hoped to have all but 1,000 customers restored to power, with trouble spots and small service outages the last ones to be addressed.

Late Wednesday, NPU crews were expected to focus on removing trees and starting restoration work in the Case Street, Scotland Road and Wightman Avenue areas of Norwich. Some of that work will continue into Thursday morning, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

"We understand that customers who have been out of service for several hours can be frustrated with our restoration progress," Riley said in a news release on the outages. "But it is important to understand that we prioritize this work based on the largest number of customers who will return to service by our addressing an outage."

Mostly, LaRose said, the response has entailed long hours of working in summer heat and humidity to clear wires from downed trees to allow the utility’s tree-cutting crews, Norwich Public Works teams or hired private contractors to remove debris so line crews could repair and rehang wires.

“We’re making sure they’re staying hydrated,” LaRose said. “We tell them ‘get off your feet, take water, take a breather.’”

NPU employees in different divisions are cross-trained to handle storm emergencies, with natural gas crews providing support to line crews. Field technicians were doing advance work by going to scenes of reported damage, taking photos and remaining to secure the scene until line crews arrive. At the South Golden Street headquarters, Geographic Information System crews were directing traffic, handling customer calls and running the control room.

Since March, NPU crews have been working in segregated cohorts of line crews and supervisors to reduce potential COVID-19 exposure. LaRose said the utility has been able to maintain those cohorts during the storm repairs.

NPU, a member of the American Public Power Association, called in mutual aid from three Massachusetts public power companies: Rowley Municipal Lighting, Marblehead Municipal Light Department and Groton Electric Light Department, with a supervisor from Groton, as well.

LaRose said those crews will be paid by their respective utilities, and NPU will reimburse those costs, hoping to be reimbursed by FEMA eventually.

The mutual aid crews were dispatched to the hard-hit Yantic Lane hill area, which LaRose called “a real challenge.” NPU enlisted the help of retired NPU general line foreman Bob Pounch to assist the imported crews.

“They know line work but not our system configuration,” LaRose said.

Norwich City Manager John Salomone praised NPU’s response to the storm, saying customer service takes precedence over the budget issues during a storm emergency.

City officials will have a virtual meeting with FEMA for the initial storm damage assessment, sending photos and GIS information in lieu of an in-person inspection by the federal agency.

NPU cautioned that any downed wire should be assumed to be energized and a potentially lethal hazard. Report any downed wires to 911 immediately.

c.bessette@theday.com

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