2008 ice storm left thousands powerless, changed the way NH preparesBy JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent
December 10. 2013 11:44PM
L inda Gauvin never thought her Sandown home would remain dark for 13 days when she awoke to a tangled mess of fallen, ice-covered trees and power lines the morning of Dec. 12, 2008.
The storm caused the largest power outage in state history and left two-thirds of the state's population in the dark.
"Anytime 400,000 people are without power, habits and thoughts are going to change," said Perry Plummer, director of New Hampshire's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "Generator purchases have skyrocketed. I would say the average citizen is far more aware of emergency preparedness since the '08 ice storm."
Weather forecasters had predicted an ice storm, but no one expected the devastation that occurred five years ago late on the night of Dec. 11 and in the early morning hours of Dec. 12. At its peak, the outage affected more than 322,000 customers of Public Service of New Hampshire, the state's largest electric utility. Before the storm, PSNH's worst outage was 95,000 from an ice storm in 1998.
PSNH's utility crews spent 13 days replacing more than 780 damaged utility poles and 1,300 transformers. They installed more than 13,600 fuses and restrung 105 miles of power cable.
"I've never seen anything like it in my 37 years here," said Dave Meserve, an operations manager for Public Service of New Hampshire who was in charge of line crews after the storm.
Ben Bartlett and his family were without power for nine days at their home in Nottingham. Bartlett had a 15-year-old daughter living with them, a 2-year-old son, and his 2-month-old premature twin sons.
"So we tried to tough it out, but by the third day the house was so cold we couldn't subject the kids to it any longer," Bartlett said.
The family left their house and stayed with Bartlett's mother-in-law in Hillsborough before eventually booking a hotel.
When the hotel stays became too expensive, Bartlett turned to some military friends who set up generators at his house.
"Not sure what we would've done if they didn't help us as they came just in time as pipes were starting to freeze in the house," Bartlett said.
He now has propane as an alternative heat source and a backup plan that includes having a close relative to provide shelter, extra food and water on hand, and an emergency fund account to access during a crisis.
PSNH's Meserve said the two biggest lessons the company learned from the ice storm were the importance of improved communication with affected towns and customers and better tree trimming. PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said the company has also installed more automated devices on the system that limit the number of people affected by an outage in a geographical area.
During the storm, PSNH developed an online outage map on its website that updates every 15 minutes. The map is now used during any outage. PSNH also now brings in additional line and tree crews in advance of a storm.
Unitil, a Hampton-based utility that saw 37,000 of its 75,000 customers in New Hampshire lose power, faced harsh criticism after the storm. Since then, Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara said the company has created a senior level emergency response director position to specifically focus on severe weather. It has adopted the National Incident Management System program and cross-training employees with a storm assignment, meaning workers in the accounting office might direct traffic at a staging site.
Unitil also gives police and fire departments a direct 24-hour hotline to special "municipal rooms" established in its regional emergency operations centers to report trouble spots.
Additional lines and overflow call capacity were also added to Unitil's call center to improve response times to calls.
Unitil has enhanced tree trimming, redesigned its website in 2010 to make information more accessible to customers, and now communicates outage information via Twitter and Facebook.
Plummer, the state's homeland security and emergency management director, said many of the changes made since the ice storm involve improvements in communication among different agencies affected during a disaster, including utility companies and the state's 234 cities and towns.
Plummer said the use of social media has been enhanced and preparedness plans have been updated to ensure a more coordinated response to disasters. Service delivery has been enhanced through pre-arranged mutual aid agreements and the use of a statewide electronic disaster management system, WebEOC, which allows for better statewide coordination of assets to improve response, he said.
In addition, an enhanced statewide shelter plan and inventory have been developed and exercised.
"You've got to be prepared. If that taught us nothing else, it's being prepared," Meserve said.