The recent Nor’easter dumped multiple feet of snow — more than 3 feet, in some places — in parts of Putney and Dummmerston, the subject of a recent meeting by state Rep. Mike Mrowicki and state Sen. Nader Hashim, who live in and represent those towns.
Lynn Barrett/Commons file photo
The recent Nor’easter dumped multiple feet of snow — more than 3 feet, in some places — in parts of Putney and Dummmerston, the subject of a recent meeting by state Rep. Mike Mrowicki and state Sen. Nader Hashim, who live in and represent those towns.

Residents discuss long power loss, information vacuum in storm

Lawmakers get a message: If you were in Putney or Dummerston during the March snowstorm, you were sitting in the dark unable to find out what was going on

PUTNEY — Having more and more information available online is great, until the power goes out and you live in a place where cell phone service is spotty to nonexistent.

Switching homes to heat pumps to reduce carbon emissions is also great, until the power goes out and you have no way to heat your home.

These two points were highlighted by the March 13-15 snowstorm that blanketed parts of Windham County with as much as 3 feet of snow and left some households without electric power and telephone service for several days.

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, did what he could during the storm to help constituents, who had plenty of concerns about maintaining power and communications in extreme weather.

Some of those concerns were aired during an online “listening session” that he convened on April 1. Mrowicki was joined by state Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, who lives in Dummerston.

Storm 'was no surprise'

Mrowicki said that officials from Green Mountain Power told him that this snowstorm was a challenge, even though they had prepared for it by lining up extra line crews from across the U.S. and eastern Canada.

“The first thing they said they had to do before they could fix any of the home hookups was to clear the power lines from the roads, and a lot of roads could not get plowed because there were 'hot' wires across them,” he said. “That was the difference between this storm and others. It took so many power lines down across roads.”

That said, Mrowicki pointed out that this snowstorm “was no surprise. It was predicted. We may have to look at whether [GMP] just needs more capacity instead of having to rely on crews from Kentucky and Oklahoma.”

Suzanne Weinberg, who lives on Camp Arden Road in Dummerston, said she was out of power for four days and three nights and that it was “not the first time we've had really long outages, but it was the longest one in quite a while.”

Coping with lost power

Robert King, who lives on Putney Mountain, said he got 31 inches of snow in a storm that he described as another example of “weather volatility.”

He said he has had a backup power generator for 23 years “and have only used it twice,” but now “we are approaching a time when we're going to have to use these tools much more.”

King said he was concerned that many people can't afford generators. At the same time, he was concerned for the “Covid refugees” who moved to Vermont from points south over the past three years and “are unencumbered by any knowledge of survival when the power goes off.”

Sue Coakley and her husband, David, live on Spring Hill Road in Putney and were out of power for four days, mostly due to a transformer failure near their home.

She said their home primarily uses heat pumps and that they have a wood furnace as a backup heating source, but having a well-insulated and energy-efficient home meant she “hardly needed the wood furnace.” However, she said that having an electric stove and an electric well pump meant they had no water or way to cook.

Coakley said that energy efficiency should be a big part of any plan to build climate resilience. As a member of the Putney Planning Commission, she said that one element of the revised town plan is “a draft goal to weatherize 90% of homes in Putney over the next eight years.”

Having energy-efficient homes, she said, means less strain on backup batteries, which means less strain on the electric grid.

“Energy efficiency should be No. 1 in our resilience strategy, because then we don't need as much power,” she said. However, Coakley said the ambitious weatherization goal may require a regional approach and having towns pool their resources to help achieve it.

Mrowicki agreed and said Vermont's electric grid also needs to be “hardened” to protect against lengthy power outages.

Coakley agreed, saying that part of that process is expanding what known as the “smart grid,” where homeowners not just receive power from utilities but send excess power generated from solar panels or wind turbines back to the utilities.

She said GMP “is ahead of the curve” compared to other utility companies in developing a two-way grid. She said a smart grid can not only handle demand during a winter peak, but it can also make it easier to restore power during outages.

Hashim said a bill has been introduced in the Senate to study the feasibility of utilities to bury more of their at-risk power lines to reduce the threat of extreme weather knocking down trees and taking lines with them.

Communication breakdown

Sarah Bedichek, who lives on Middle Road in Dummerston, said she was frustrated with the lack of communication during the storm. She and her husband were out of power for four days and did not have a backup generator.

“We lost our furnace, water pump, our voice-over-internet phone,” she said. “And we only have a weak cell signal. I consider myself lucky if I can text the single word 'outage' to GMP and have it delivered safely.”

While they put aside water and had a propane-fueled fireplace insert for a secondary heat source, she said the one thing they did not have was reliable communications.

“Getting updates [from GMP] about where things stand, especially in a long-term outage, was sort of impossible,” Bedichek said. “Normally, GMP does an excellent job in communicating, when you have access to the web. Their outage maps are full of information which really helped put any outage in context.

“But when the power is down and there is very little cell signal and your cell battery is depleted, you really can't look anywhere else,” she said.

“It's really maddening when everyone says 'go to our website' or 'go to our app,'” Bedichek continued. “We have no cell phone coverage on our road, and that's why we still have a landline and old Princess phone that I can plug in and reach GMP when the power goes out.”

Mrowicki said that while the need for expanded cell phone service has been a perennial complaint among Vermonters for nearly two decades, few want cell towers built in their neighborhoods.

“We keep working to expand [coverage], but the surest way for a utility or a legislator to get swamped with complaints is to suggest putting up a cell tower somewhere,” he said.

Where was radio?

Several of the dozen people who attended the virtual meeting recalled that during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when several towns were left isolated after massive flood damage, local radio did do a better job relaying information.

Local radio would have been an alternative, Bedichek said, but she said “they had really limited information.” She didn't really know about the true extent of the outages in Dummerston until her daughter came by to visit and was able to call up the GMP outage maps on her phone.

“I know that a lot of people must have limited cell service, so I really wonder why we have gotten away from having a radio broadcast that can be accessed by almost any household to really give us context,” she said.

Howard Weiss-Tisman, who lives in Westminster and is the southern Vermont reporter for Vermont Public, said that both commercial and public radio stations are going through a transition from over-the-air broadcasting to streaming their programs.

“People are moving more and more toward the internet and accessing us through their apps, through their smart phones, and streaming,” he said. “The future [for broadcasters] is moving away from towers on mountains, which are very expensive and aren't 100% reliable.”

According to Weiss-Tisman, utility officials have told him that in the 12 years since Irene, people have become more dependent on electricity for just about everything in the home. “We have so much attached to the grid at the same time that climate change is happening,” he said.

Coakley said that regardless of the fixes to the electric grid or communications, the most important thing after a storm doesn't need batteries or a cell signal, and that is the tradition of “Vermonters taking care of Vermonters” in a crisis.

“In our neighborhood, people looked out for each other and they helped each other out. People actually had fun together and meals together,” she said.

“It's just part of the culture, and we'll always need to continue to do that,” Coakley observed.

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