Utilities to hold forums on storm recovery

NASHUA – If you thought the historic ice storm that devastated a huge swath of the state and left hundreds of thousands without power and sometimes phone service was over, you were wrong.

New Hampshire utilities are releasing more details about their weeks-long recovery efforts while two state agencies are preparing to delve into the efficiency of those rebuilding operations.

The state Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will hold a series of public input sessions during March and April as part of their review of government and utility responses to the ice storm, said Debra Howland, PUC executive director.

The PUC is looking at utility companies such as Public Service of New Hampshire and Unitil, as well as telephone and water companies whose service was interrupted. Homeland Security will look at the response operations of state and federal agencies that supported shelters and first responders, said Jim Van Dongen, a spokesman for Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The sessions haven’t been scheduled yet but will start the week of March 16 and continue into April, according to Anne Ross, PUC general counsel.

About 10 of the sessions will be in the areas most affected by the storm, and the exact times and locations will be announced in the coming weeks, she said.

Meanwhile, PSNH released a report titled “Record Outage, Record Recovery” that details the extent of the damage to the company’s power grid and its efforts to repair it.

Of the estimated 400,000 people who lost power during the storm, which dropped more than 2 inches of ice and freezing rain on southern New Hampshire on Dec. 11, about 322,000 – or about 80 percent – were PSNH customers.

The storm left more people without power than the previous four biggest outages combined. The previous record holder was the 93,000 who lost power during Storm Bernice in December 1996, according to the report.

The story was similar for Unitil, which was faced with an outage five times the size of anything it had seen before, according to the company’s senior vice president, George Gantz.

The storm knocked out power to about 41,000 of the company’s 75,000 customers. Unitil spent about $10 million to recover, Gantz said.

Within two weeks, 99.9 percent of PSNH’s customers had power restored, according the company’s report, at a cost of an estimated $75 million.

Nashua was one of the hardest-hit communities, in terms of raw numbers, with more than 15,000 customers without power, according to the report.

By far, most wires and poles were taken down by trees and branches overloaded with ice, and many people have complained that that should have been foreseen. But according to the company’s report, the company spends $13 million to trim trees and branches along 2,000 miles of roadway.

Plus, an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of the problem branches are outside the “trim zone,” the area where utility companies would cut branches, said Tom Frantz, director of the PUC’s electric utility division.

Within a week of the storm, about 85 percent – 275,000 people – had their power restored. It took that long to restore power to the 93,000 people who were in the dark following Storm Bernice 12 years earlier, according to the report.

Users will pay for the majority of the bill PSNH racked up during the cleanup. The company expects to recover about $50 million from its customers over five years by adding about $1 to the typical monthly bill. The rest will come from insurance payouts and a storm reserve fund, according to the report.

The times and locations of the public input sessions will be announced soon. Comments can also be submitted at the PUC’s Web site, www.puc.nh.gov, or by writing to Debra Howland, Executive Director, New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, 21 South Fruit St., Suite 10, Concord, NH 03301.