Thursday July 28, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Western Massachusetts Electric Co. needed nearly 24 hours to restore power to thousands of local homes and businesses, but the cleanup of tree debris from Tuesday's deadly and terrifying thunderstorm could take two weeks, city officials said on Wednesday.

The severe weather also forced two families to temporarily evacuate their Third Street homes because the brief yet ferocious storm's heavy rains caused an embankment along the railroad tracks to partially collapse Tuesday evening. The residents returned home on Wednesday, while the railroad owner, CSX, began shoring up the sliding earth, according to Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski.

As for the storm's lone fatality, Hinsdale Police have yet to name the 85-year-old man killed in connection with the storm. The Hinsdale resident was riding his moped on Route 8 when it crashed into a fallen tree entangled with live electric wires.

Residents in Hinsdale and Peru were among other WMECO customers who experienced power outages, but the bulk of the blackouts occurred in Pittsfield, utility officials said.

The dozens of utility workers, many from WMECO's sister companies in Connecticut and New Hampshire, worked around-the-clock to replace broken poles and string up new wires in the city from late Tuesday afternoon through early Wednesday evening.

The nearly 75 men and women who responded to the outage had whittled down the initial list of 8,140 customers without electricity to 550 by 6 p.m., according to WMECO spokesman Edgar Alejandro.

"We do have some spots where the [utility] poles are weak and we'll have to go back and address them," Alejandro said.

If residents still have downed wires in their neighborhood, he urged them to call WMECO immediately and assume they are electrically charged.

Meanwhile, Czerwinski said he estimates that municipal workers will need "a week, maybe two" to remove the downed trees and tree limbs strewn about the city. While Czerwinski estimates the removal of downed trees and tree limbs on city property could cost $70,000, he couldn't hazard a guess what home and business owners will spend cleaning up their properties.

City officials did meet with state and federal emergency management officials on Wednesday, but it's too early to determine if the city qualifies for disaster relief funds.

"Unless we reach a certain threshold of cost, it won't trigger federal dollars," said Czerwinski, who's also Pittsfield's emergency management director. "There's not a lot of free money for these events."

The primary path of destruction stretched along a corridor from the Pittsfield State Forest to Pecks Road, Wahconah and Tyler streets, and Crane and Dalton avenues.

One of the hardest hit areas was the Thomas Island Road neighborhood, which extends out into the northern end of Onota Lake. The high winds of up to 60 miles per hour, according to the National Weather service in Albany, N.Y., uprooted several 30- to 40-foot trees there. Three of them surprisingly caused little damage to four, single-family houses in a row.

"It's the miracle on Thomas Island as these trees fell between the houses," said Martha White, whose son-in-law Dennis Burke's house was among the near-misses.

"I watched the storm for a little bit," said Burke, "then the children and I headed for the basement."

In all, Pittsfield Police and Fire departments responded to more than 130 calls of downed trees and wires in the aftermath of the wind-swept rain and hail that pound Pittsfield for only 30 minutes.

"This is amazing and scary that so much damage was done in so little time," said Laurie Robinson of Brombach Street.

Ginny Gemmel from Allentown, Pa., visiting her daughter who's due to give birth any day to her first child, waited out the storm at a gas station not far from Thomas Island Road.

"The wind was so ferocious it rocked my car," Gemmel said. "It was very frightening."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.

What to do in case of emergency ...

In Pittsfield, if you see a live wire, call 911. To report a tree or limb on a wire, call (413) 448-9770 and the Fire Department will investigate.

If it is a city tree with no wires, call (413) 499-9314 or (413) 499-9321.

If it is a tree on private land, residents should work with their insurance company and a tree service.

To report an electricity outage in the city, call (413) 781-4300 (WMECO).

To report phone outage, call 800-837-4966 (Verizon).

To report cable outage, 866-321-2225 (Time Warner Cable).

City and utility officials urge citizens to keep themselves, their children and pets away from downed limbs and trees because unseen wires can cause severe injury or death.

Source: City of Pittsfield