NEW YORK – The snowstorm that hit the Northeast knocked down trees and power lines and left hundreds of thousands of homes in the cold and dark.
About 650,000 customers lost power during the height of the snowstorm, most of them in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Mass., lost electricity and shut down Friday night during the storm, though authorities say there's no threat to public safety.
Some parts of New England had more than 2 feet of snow. The storm brought high winds and left many roads impassable, hampering utilities' efforts to restore power.
There was some consolation, though: The outages weren't as widespread as they were in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. And restoring power will likely be a much quicker job — taking days, not weeks, as was the case with Sandy.
Sandy brought winds of 90 miles per hour whipping through trees that were still draped with leaves. During this storm, a gust of 82 miles per hour was recorded in Westport, Conn. That's still dangerous, but the leaves are long gone so trees and branches weren't stressed as much.
Here are some questions and answers about what utilities expect, along with some important things to remember if your power goes out.
Q: How do utilities prepare for a storm like this one?
A: They start meeting in the days before a storm to make sure they have crews and equipment ready to go and to plan staffing for their command centers. They ask unaffected utilities for extra line crews to help restore power. They coordinate with state and county officials and plan public notifications. All year round, of course, utilities conduct tree-trimming programs and other maintenance activities designed to minimize damage to wires and other equipment. Now they hope it helps.
Q: Are winter storms more or less destructive than summer storms?
A: It depends. A winter storm that comes early, when leaves are still on trees, can be as destructive as a hurricane. A storm that coats trees and wires with ice can also be dangerous. That's because the weight of the snow and ice drag down wires, branches or whole trees, explains Seth Hulkower, an electric power distribution expert at the consulting firm ICF International.
"Snowfall by itself is not problematic," Hulkower says. "The biggest concern is whether there is going to be ice and how high the winds are going to be."
Relatively high winds were more of a concern than ice this time.
Q: How do utilities work to get power restored after the storm?
A: Throughout the storm, utilities build maps of where in the system people have lost power and, based on the pattern of outages, what equipment has been damaged. As soon as winds die down enough for work to resume, crews fan out to try to reconnect wires, erect new poles, or fix or repair transformers or other equipment. Utilities focus first on repairs that restore power to the highest number of houses. Downed wires that serve only a few houses are the last to get repaired.
Q: Superstorm Sandy's storm surge swamped electrical substations, knocking out power to thousands. Was that a threat this time?
A: There was some concern about flooding, but it did not appear to create major problems in New York and New Jersey, states hit hardest during Sandy. The possibility of flooding did lead to the evacuation of two neighborhoods in Quincy, Mass., south of Boston, and of 20 to 30 people in oceanfront homes in Salisbury in northeastern Massachusetts, authorities in those towns said. But any flooding was expected to be milder than what Sandy wrought.
Q: Did Sandy and the nor'easter that followed a week later make things less dangerous by clearing out the weak and dead branches and trees?
A: Yes. But there's a potential trade-off: The storms may have weakened trees that were previously healthy. Also, there may still be some weak spots in the electrical system where utilities made temporary fixes that they haven't yet been able to secure.
Q: What should homeowners do in the event of an outage?
Report outages as soon as possible. Stay away from downed wires and report them to the utility. If you are running a generator, make sure it is outside to avoid breathing exhaust. If using a portable stove or kerosene heater, make sure there is adequate ventilation. The best way to keep the house warm is to open blinds during the day, but shut them at night, and gather in central rooms, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.
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