Thursday November 1, 2012

LENOX -- Residents of Morgan Manor are upset after living in the dark and without heat for the past two days, while two major utility companies allegedly argued over who was responsible for repairing the downed power lines and poles.

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Berkshires on Monday afternoon with winds gusting up to 60 mph knocking out power to thousands, many of the senior citizens living in the condo complex figured they'd just have to wait as electrical crews worked to restore the downed lines.


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Mary Benjamin, 89, was home watching television when she heard "a loud boom" as a nearby transformer blew when large sections of a 70-foot willow tree broke off and fell onto the transmission lines, causing the utility poles to snap.

With no electricity to power her refrigerator, Benjamin lost the $100 of groceries she had just bought, including the 14 hamburger patties she had made and froze.

Luckily for her and several other residents, the stoves were gas and she was able to ignite her pilot light to heat some canned foods and her kitchen for a short period.

"I've been living on soup, tea and cookies galore," she said.

Her neighbors, like Steven Shafer, also checked in on her every couple of hours to see if she needed anything.

Benjamin's children also bought her a battery-operated candle light to illuminate part of the room.

But as Monday night turned to Tuesday night, and the homes and buildings surrounding the 69 units of Morgan Manor seemed to all have power, 80-year-old Dorthy "Dot" Paud said she had enough of waiting and called National Grid to find out when power might be turned back on.

Paud said the response she got was "oppressive."

According to her, the representative told her there was a dispute between National Grid and Verizon about which company owned the utility poles, and thus, was responsible for the repairs.

Residents of Morgan Manor in Lenox lost power when a 70-foot willow tree broke off and fell onto transmission lines, causing utility poles to snap. Jason
Residents of Morgan Manor in Lenox lost power when a 70-foot willow tree broke off and fell onto transmission lines, causing utility poles to snap. Jason Barroso of Tigh and Bond environmental consulting surveys the scene on Wednesday. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

"For what we pay to them, it's unfathomable this could happen," Paud said. "It's as dark as the ace of spades out there. With so many twigs and branches on the ground, it was treacherous to walk around at night. Meanwhile, these two huge companies are acting like children, fighting over who spilled the milk."

The next morning, Paud said she starting calling everyone she could think of calling, including state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli's office.

After hearing what happened, Pignatelli said he made several phone calls to National Grid and spoke to a representative on Wednesday. Pig natelli said he was told a crew would be dispatched to Morgan Manor and that power was expected to be restored on Wednesday night.

"There's extensive damage out there," Pignatelli said. "We dodged a bullet in the Berkshires, but where there was damage, it was often spread out. Response times have been really wonderful, but there's still more work to do, like Morgan Manor. Who owns the telephone poll is an issue we need to work out long-term."

He said he fully understood the residents' frustrations, but he urged them to be patient.

"Be thankful [Hurricane Sandy] wasn't of the magnitude people initially thought, that no one got hurt ," he said. "And tip their hats to the crews working to get things back online. These aren't fair-weather employees."

According to a National Grid employee at Morgan Manor on Wednesday, three utility poles needed to be replaced, two which had snapped because of the tension on the wires after the willow branches fell onto them, and a third one just to be safe. Attempts to reach a Verizon spokesperson were not successful on Wednesday.

David Pill, the property manager for Morgan Manor, said it was extremely frustrating seeing so many other properties with power, while many of the elderly residents there were without.

"Our residents are troopers, but most are on a fixed income and the hundreds of dollars of groceries have all gone bad now and the utility companies certainly aren't going to reimburse them," he said. "If this place was ripped apart, we'd know we'd have to wait and understand that, but this is ridiculous. This is something that just shouldn't have happened."

Pill said he was surprised the utility poles, which were installed roughly 45 years ago, had lasted as long as they had, especially after the recent series of damaging weather systems.

Last year during Tropical Storm Irene, the Halloween snow storm and the tornado, crews from National Grid came to the Berkshires to help rebuild, Pignatelli said. Now many of those workers are helping to restore power to New Jersey and New York.

Paud said she understood his point, but that it didn't excuse the companies' behavior.

"We're like toys to them, little numbers, dollar signs," she said. "Shame on them for treating us like hostages. When you don't pay your bill, the power goes off. But when the power's out, where are they?"

To reach Josh Stilts:
jstilts@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243.
On Twitter: @JoshStilts