With Hurricane Sandy working its way toward the East Coast, Gov. Deval Patrick on Friday outlined storm response preparations, including the cancellation of his planned trip to Florida Sunday to campaign for President Barack Obama.
“We’re watching very carefully and we’re doing our role to ask lots of questions,” Patrick told reporters during a press conference he called to provide an update on the hurricane and preparations for it.
Patrick said the National Weather Service had advised him that the storm will reach Massachusetts as early as Sunday night and may linger here until Wednesday morning.
Forecasters are currently predicting the hurricane will hit somewhere near Delaware and New Jersey. Due to its size, high winds and heavy rain and surf are forecast for states from the mid-Atlantic up through New England.
“There are so-called astronomical high tides because of the full moon, so tides are going to be high anyway. The seas are expected to be 30 and 35 feet – I mean above normal – before the waves, so that’s a pretty serious condition,” Patrick said. He said 4- to 6-foot storm surges, 6 to 10 inches of rain and “damaging winds” are expected.
State officials laid out steps taken to ensure improved storm response from electrical utilities, which were widely criticized for slow responses to outages caused by Tropical Storm Irene and an October 2011 snowstorm. “I think the utilities understand they have some work to do to regain the confidence of their customers,” Patrick said.
Attorney General Martha Coakley has recommended fines from utilities for their response, including $10 million from NSTAR, $16 million from National Grid, and $4 million from Western Massachusetts Electric Company.
“Our investigations identified many problems with last year’s storm response, including major communications failures with customers and municipalities. As a result, our office has recommended that the Department of Public Utilities impose record fines. We expect the utilities to have fixed these problems as ratepayers deserve a better response this time. If similar problems do occur in this or future storms, we are prepared to investigate and ask for further accountability,” Coakley said in a statement.
The Department of Public Utilities is expected to issue a ruling regarding utility storm response in the first couple weeks of November, said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan.
A state law overhauled utilities’ requirements for emergency preparedness, and Sullivan said improvements have been made over previous procedures.
“Every city and town has been assigned a community liaison from the utility,” said Sullivan. He said, “It will be a much more direct and personalized communication with the municipalities.”
Internal communications at the utilities will be improved as well, according to Sullivan, as both tree crews and wire crews will be “coordinated” in their response to downed lines and downed trees.
“All of the utilities have put their crews on call,” Sullivan said.
The utilities have also contracted with crews that are out of state, from as far away as Washington State, who could be flown in to help with the response.
“It would appear that the numbers of crews that they have put on call is sufficient but again we are measuring this response in terms of the results on the ground and not necessarily just in the numbers,” Sullivan said.
State workers are clearing catch basins and servicing chainsaws in preparations for potential damage. Patrick said,
“The T will make every effort to keep service going,” he added.
Currently a Class 1 hurricane, Sandy is moving north from the Caribbean where it left 29 people dead, according to the Associated Press. It is expected to merge with another storm making its way eastward across the country.
The threat of a storm has already changed Patrick’s plans to travel as a campaign surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign – the governor had hoped to visit Florida on Sunday.
“I was planning to be in Florida for the day. I’ve canceled that trip,” Patrick said.
Next Wednesday and Thursday Patrick has plans to campaign in “the west and Midwest” though those plans are now up in the air. Patrick said, “The Sunday trip is definitely off and we’ll see what the storm brings before I make any other decisions.”
Patrick urged residents to prepare for the storm. The governor encouraged residents to have a flashlight and batteries, have a plan for pets’ needs, possibly keep cash on hand in case ATMs are out of service, and remove diseased tree limbs ahead of the storm.
Patrick said people should clean gutters, elevate items in basements, tie down lawn furniture and take boats out of the water. Patrick also advised people to stay tuned to weather updates, check in on an elderly neighbor and use caution if using a generator. The state will operate an information phone line at 211.