Isaias was slow to arrive in the Berkshires.
After slamming ashore in North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane Aug. 4, the tropical storm made its way northward, threatening to deliver several inches of rain and heavy winds to the Berkshires.
Things were fairly quiet early the next day, but when the storm arrived, South County was hit particularly hard, with gusty winds knocking down numerous trees, limbs and utility poles across the region.
Like many Berkshire residents, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli lost power at his home. It was several hours before his was restored — and he was among the lucky ones; some remote locations had no electricity for several days.
The Lenox Democrat said that with climate change accelerating, residents should brace for more severe weather and more frequent outages. But, he noted, better maintenance of trees, which often cause the damage to power lines, can help communities avoid long outages.
“Something’s going on with the climate,” said Pignatelli, who previously worked as an electrician. “The severity of the storms is increasing all year round, and I think we need to prepare for that. ... Nobody likes to take down trees, but nobody likes when a tree falls and takes out their power or damages their car.”
The tropical storm caused widespread outages, but severe thunderstorms have caused lingering outages in numerous Berkshire communities in recent weeks, including a powerful derecho that raced across the region last week.
And the outages come at a time when residents are more reliant than ever for electricity as they work and attend school from home. The Berkshire Hills Regional School District closed schools Oct. 8 because too many staff and students lacked power and, with it, internet access.
But, while utility companies say they they are vigilant with tree maintenance, more power outages likely lie ahead, particularly in rural areas.
While one solution — burying power lines underground — could make outages less frequent, it is costly and could lead to longer repair times.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said that after recent storms, his office “had a number of constituents reach out concerned with the duration of the outages,” which hit rural parts of Southern Berkshire County hard.
Eversource restored power to 70,000 customers in Western Massachusetts after Isaias and to 50,000 after the October storm, said spokeswoman Priscilla Ress.
Pignatelli said less-populous communities often experience longer delays to restore power, leading some rural homeowners to install their own generators. He added, though, that National Grid and Eversource have been “extremely responsive” to his calls regarding constituents’ concerns.
“The utility companies have a responsibility to go to the more heavily populated areas with power outages, and they work from there,” Pignatelli said. “Sometimes when you know you’re on the end of the utility line, people install generators as a backup. They’re not cheap, but they add insurance.”
He said greater collaboration between towns and utility companies on tree maintenance could be necessary to prevent future outages as severe weather continues.
“There are town-owned trees and there are trees owned by property owners, but if they are around power lines, there’s a responsibility to avoid hundreds of people being without power for hours on end,” Pignatelli said. “I think that burden of responsibility is on the utility companies and the community, as well as the homeowners.”
National Grid cites falling tree limbs as a primary cause for outages in storms, although power loss also can result from damage to electrical equipment by wind, lightning or a buildup of ice, said spokeswoman Christine Milligan.
The company will trim trees around high-voltage wires every five to seven years but leaves it up to residents to maintain branches around individual homes.
“To ensure reliable service, National Grid visits the neighborhoods we serve every five to seven years to trim around high-voltage electric wires,” she said. “We typically do not trim outside of our schedule unless there is a significant hazard affecting those wires.”
Eversource is investing $41 million this year to trim “hazardous trees” along 2,700 miles of roads, including nearly 100 miles in both Pittsfield and Becket.
“But, the reality is, a perfect storm of invasive species and weather conditions over the last several years has devastated our trees and there’s an increasing amount of work to do,” Ress said. “We’re constantly finding trees that were damaged in the last year or so and are now dead or dying, and there’s no indication when the problem will stop.”National Grid offers guidance for residents regarding trees near homes but says homeowners are responsible for those.
“Many people choose to remove these trees to reduce the risk that their tree may damage their home or electric service,” Milligan said.
Pignatelli suggested placing power lines underground, a strategy he said could beautify highways and prevent frequent outages but that he acknowledged could be costly or make repairs more difficult.
“If a town is redoing a road and replacing sewer and waterlines, let’s at least have the conversation of maybe putting the conduit for a power or phone line underground,” he said.
Companies say underground lines might not be best for all communities.
“Buried power lines would protect from the wind and tree damage,” Milligan said. “However, there’s other factors to consider, such as the cost to move infrastructure underground, which, under our regulatory framework, would be passed on to the customer.”
The cost could range from $2 million to $6 million per mile, depending on the community, Ress said.
Pignatelli said it’s an option worth exploring, and he also called on towns to make tree maintenance a priority despite this year’s budget woes.
“Budgets are tight, and there’s only so much money to go around, but it should be an ongoing maintenance issue,” Pignatelli said. “When these storms pop up, hopefully, we can eliminate or greatly reduce the number of power outages.”