Souhegan Valley towns back to normal after Thanksgiving storm

It looked like ordinary snow, but as it built up on power lines and tree limbs the night before Thanksgiving, it developed the consistency of frozen oatmeal, or “10 inches of concrete,” as one line worker put it.

The weight of all that snow knocked down trees, branches and wires, causing what power companies called the fourth-worst power outage in New Hampshire history.

All local towns had widespread outages, among the more than 300,000 power outages in northern New England, forcing people to cancel their Thanksgiving dinners and get out their generators.

In Milford, the fire department received dozens of calls between Wednesday night and Sunday, for wires on the road and car accidents. “There were six or seven calls from people whose carbon monoxide detectors went off,” said Fire Chief Jack Kelly, after generators were placed in garages, or too close to houses.

There was only one road closure, Kelly said, Osgood Road near Burns Hill, and there were lane restrictions on Mile Slip, Savage, Whitten and North River roads.

Outages started Wednesday night with about 7,300 in Milford, but the downtown was spared. By Saturday, it was down to 1,000, and by Saturday night, all but two Milford houses had their power restored.

“PSNH did a fantastic job,” Kelly said.

In Amherst, one family left a heat lamp for a lizard cage on the wood floor and returned home when power was restored to find the re-activated lamp had started a small fire.

They were lucky, said acting Amherst Fire Chief Matt Conley, because a similar heat lamp left on a carpeted floor during the last big storm caused a significant fire.

“There was definitely a potential” for a major fire, said the chief.

Overall, though, the power outages might have been an inconvenience, but did not cause major problems.

“This community has a lot of generators,” the chief said.

At one point, a tree fell onto Route 101, he said, but firefighters and public works employees were able to move it without help from the state Department of Transportation.

The city of Nashua had set up a regional shelter at Nashua High School North, but wound up with only three people. Milford Fire Chief Jack Kelly said his department received a few phone calls about shelter, but he didn’t think anyone went to Nashua.

A Lyndeborough police cruiser traveling on Route 31 near the Wilton House of Pizza was damaged when a tree branch fell on it, said Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen. The windshield was damaged, but the officer was not hurt.

Trucks from Canada and various parts of the United States joined New England power companies and used Hampshire Hills Sports and Fitness Club in Milford as their meeting place, although Hampshire Hills lost power for about 30 hours, beginning Wednesday night.

“Usually, we only lose power for an hour or two, and only five hours during the great ice storm of 2008,” said owner Rick Holder in an email. “A veritable army of lineman and lift trucks bivouacked” here, and they “strategized, and zoomed in and out to get power restored in the Souhegan Valley. Hats off to those crews so willing to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in the snowy cold.”

Six years ago, during the December ice storm, the club offered its facilities to workers from all over the Northeast and Canada as a staging area and also as a place to sleep and shower.

Public Service of New Hampshire serves the vast majority of utility customers around here, and its peak outage number in New Hampshire was 207,000 at 11 a.m. on Nov. 27, Thanksgiving.

PSNH spokesman Martin Murray said the utility began warning its employees on Monday and Tuesday last week that a significant storm was coming, and on Tuesday sent out a phone advisory to its medical-dependent customers. On Wednesday, utility companies geared up their mutual aid system, which was started after the ice storm of 2008, acquiring 100 extra crews from companies throughout the Northeast and the Canadian provinces, until they had more than 1,500 line workers and tree workers.

“Especially given it was the Thanksgiving holiday, it was extremely frustrating, and we understand that,” Murray said, “but we are proud of our response and speed,” considering the thousands of separate problems that had to be dealt with.

Over the past few years, the company has done extensive tree cutting and trimming, about $18-
million-a-year worth of tree work, he said.

“It’s obvious that trees and branches outside the trimming zone were the culprits,” Murray said.

Dealing with trees in New England is a balancing act, he said, because utilities also have to consider aesthetic issues, particularly on designated scenic roads, and property rights.

“One small change in state law has been a major help with the tree clearing,” Murray said. Utilities once had to wait until land owners they had notified about potential cutting got back to them. Now, the utilities wait 45 days, and if there is no response, they can take that as a “yes” and trim the trees.

The three major storms that caused the largest number of PSNH outages, he said, were the 2008 ice storm, with 322,000, the wind storm of February 2010 with 216,000, and the “Snowtober” storm of 2011, with 237,000.

The Thanksgiving storm pushed the 2012 Hurricane Sandy outages, with 137,000, to fifth place.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@cabinet.com.