Saturday October 27, 2012

BOSTON -- Massachusetts officials braced Friday for the arrival of a mega-storm that could bring damaging winds, 10 inches of rain and coastal and inland flooding to the state and much of the East Coast.

While the exact track of Hurricane Sandy remains uncertain, Gov. Deval Patrick said at a Statehouse briefing that current projections show the weather system reaching the state by late Sunday and lingering until early Wednesday.

Forecasts that show Sandy veering inland and merging with another storm front in the mid-Atlantic could lower the potential for catastrophic damage in Massachusetts, but Patrick still warned of a 4- to 6-foot coastal storm surge and 30- to 35-foot seas offshore.

Boat owners who planned to remove their vessels from the water were advised to do so by Sunday.

With the potential for widespread power failures, much of the focus of the state’s preparations remained on power companies that were harshly criticized for their response to two major storms last year that, in both cases, left some customers without electricity for a week.

"It’s the weather. It’s Mother Nature. It’s not entirely predictable," Patrick said. "But the things that we observed from the last two storms should be lessons we are planning against."

Utilities face the threat of stiff fines if their response falls short of expectations, officials said.

Attorney General Martha Coak ley has recommended a combined $30 million in fines against National Grid, NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. for problems after Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and a surprise snowstorm last October. The Department of Public Utilities is expected to rule on those penalties next month.

Richard Sullivan, the state’s Energy and Environmental Af fairs Secretary, said utilities will be under strict scrutiny this time around. He said each has filed emergency plans with the state and are contracting with crews as far away as Wash ington state to deal with expected outages.

"It would appear that the number of crews they have put on call is sufficient, but we are measuring this response in terms of the results on the ground and not necessarily the numbers," he said.

To improve communications with cities and towns, utilities have assigned a liaison to each community for the duration of the storm and restoration efforts, Sullivan said.

State officials urged utilities to synchronize the activities of crews assigned to repair lines with those assigned to clear trees felled by high winds, citing that as a major obstacle after last year’s storms.

"Though there were a lot of crews, the tree crews and the line crews were not necessarily well coordinated. A line crew would go someplace where the power was down, but because there wasn’t someone there to remove the tree that had caused the power line to come down, they couldn’t deal with it," Patrick said.

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid Massachusetts, told reporters in a teleconference on Friday that her company was ready for the storm.

"We really learned a lot from last year’s storms," she said. "We recognize the frustrations customers had, and it is our objective to earn their trust back and to meet their expectations this time around."

National Grid has revamped how it deals with downed wires, aggressively trimmed problem tree limbs and worked to more quickly assess storm damage, Reed said.

Patrick, a Democrat, said Friday he had canceled a scheduled Sunday campaign trip to Florida on behalf of President Barack Obama and would reassess other campaign activities planned for later in the week.

He urged residents to take precautions in advance of the storm, including making sure their homes are equipped with working flashlights, food and water, extra medications and pet supplies.