Foxboro Town SignBy Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 11/2011

For the second time in two months, despite plenty of weather forecasts and warnings, our town was without power for four days. The unprecedented pre-Halloween Nor’easter took out power for over two million people up and down the eastern seaboard, but my focus today is on our area, because while I can’t really speak to what people in other states experienced, I can certainly talk about what happened here. Like most of you, I’m angry, and I want to see things change.

I am deliberately writing and submitting this piece BEFORE the Tuesday meeting at the high school because I prefer not to have my thoughts affected by the atmosphere there — I feel it likely my sentiments here are probably echoed by many of you, but I thought I would commit these thoughts to paper before attending the meeting.

First off, let’s start with the good — Volunteerism and charity are alive and well in Foxboro. Once again, we saw the selfless actions of so many volunteers who worked helping keep shelters running and manning emergency lines — so many people did a lot to help others. (And my compliments to our police, fire and emergency services for once again keeping us safe in difficult conditions).

Also, grateful thanks to the Kraft organization for once again donating generators, lights and other needed supplies (and even offering warmth and recharging, free movies, and having a Halloween event for kids the following Saturday). Thanks also to local businesses and restaurants for their hospitality and kindness. And of course, thanks to Michael Webber and the folks at Foxboro Cable Access who did a round-the-clock job of keeping us informed.

Another good thing: Verizon was on the ball. They were out in force the morning after the storm. Every truck I saw (and I drove all around town for days) was a Verizon truck. That’s a company that clearly knows how to take care of its customers.

Our electrical providers? Not so much. And to be clear, I don’t mean any of the workers actually out doing their jobs, fixing lines. They had the most thankless task of all — restore power in a VERY angry environment.

Let’s cut to the chase — Power outages are a given during intense storms, and not all scenarios can be predicted. Fair enough. That said, just two short months ago this town was without power for FOUR DAYS after a downgraded hurricane — whose path had been predicted for over a week — slammed into the area. This time around, for most of us, another four days (or more) without electricity.

This is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. I’ve lived in this part of Massachusetts all my life and Foxboro over twenty years and have never seen this level of outages. We lost power during the Blizzard of 78 — a storm that shut down the state for a week — for five hours. We’ve weathered hundreds of storms with no power loss. Even the April Fool’s Day of 1997 that saw power restored within a day. These extreme weather events are not new here — we’re in the direct path of hurricanes every year, and each winter usually brings a ton of heavy snow, all of it forecast a week in advance.

SO WHAT HAS CHANGED? Why can’t the utility companies respond in a timely fashion anymore?

This isn’t about the inconvenience of gassing up a generator if you’re lucky enough to have one (and most people don’t). This isn’t about extra blankets on the bed.

This is about local businesses losing product and profit in a terrible economy. This is about kids not being able to go to school. This is about another refrigerator of spoiled food for families who cannot afford to replace it. It’s about pets who cannot tolerate the cold. This is about safety — our streets and intersections are DARK and dangerous.

This is about survival. Reliable electrical power is a matter of life and death for many people. And it finally happened — someone died as a result of the outage — an elderly woman died last week in her unheated North Brookfield apartment, apparently from hypothermia, after days without power. How many more have to die before things change?

Foxboro’s over 60 population is now what — 20%? 25%? Who’s ensuring they will be taken care of? There are people caring for small children, people with babies, folks managing their own illnesses, or caring for someone who requires electrical power to run their medical equipment. A Foxboro woman was interviewed on WBZ and explained her mother had to be evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital because her electrical medical equipment failed due to the outage.

So where do we go from here?

I do not believe burying wires is the solution — for one thing, the cost would be prohibitive, it would take years, and problems with underground wires would take much longer to fix.

And to be fair, Foxboro can do a far better job of managing trees growing between wires and hovering over wires — these need to be proactively and preemptively removed. And not just a onetime thing – this should be an ongoing process of evaluation and removal of likely troublemaking limbs. While not every “tree-threat” can be predicted, many, many are obvious as a future troublemaker. Remove them now.

Question: Is the town allowed to do so or must the utility company do it? If the town has the ultimate authority on tree removal, then we as a town need to get our own house in order and take every reasonable proactive step to trim and remove threats to power lines. That is reasonable and fair, and we can do our part. If the town is not allowed to remove trees near power lines, and that task falls under the prevue of the utility company, then either a) the utility company must step up NOW and begin a rigorous process of tree evaluation and threat removal or b) the policy needs to change and Foxboro needs to take charge of the task – even if it means hiring more people to do the work.

That said, the main problem, as I see it, is at least here in Foxboro, our electric utility is simply not capable or equipped to handle the energy needs of our town or respond to an emergency in anything resembling a timely manner. I have no idea what it takes to run a utility company — but don’t take the job for a town if you cannot meet the needs of the customers.

I think this town’s focus needs be on investigating and evaluating how best to serve the power needs of this town. Perhaps we need to seriously consider the methods used by surrounding towns that have their own power-generation capability. Perhaps utilities need more incentive to respond to emergencies — Rep Daniel Winslow of Norfolk proposes that power companies be forced to give customers two days worth of rebates for every day they go without electricity. Senator Scott Brown wrote a powerful letter to the utilities demanding answers about what happened.

Things need to change, now. It’s understandable (and expected) that any area will lose power once in a while, especially during a severe storm. But four days or more at this time of year is not just about inconvenience and spoiled food. For our most fragile citizens — babies, the ill, senior citizens — an extended outage can literally be a matter of life and death. One elderly woman in North Brookfield has already died. That’s one too many.

The time for hand-wringing is over. We cannot solve the power issues of the east coast, but here in this town I think it’s time to seriously start thinking about how best to provide this town with power over the next generation.

It’s time to stop reacting, and acting as victims. We’re a great town with smart people — what can be done to protect us and provide our needed power? These are complicated questions, and the time to start looking for answers is now.

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