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Memories of Massive Ice Storm Still Vivid

December 16, 2018
SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / BRETT CRAWFORD Telephone wires and trees block the way on Holman Street in Fitchburg on Friday, December 12, 2008. Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Ten years later, memories about the once-in-a-generation ice storm that downed trees and power lines, and plunged hundreds of thousands of North Central Mass. residents into darkness for weeks, remain vivid among those who lived, and worked, through the ordeal.

“I could see the ice building up and I could hear cracking and the trees starting to come down -- it was an eerie feeling,” said Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella about the evening of Dec. 11 2008 while returning from a Christmas party in Fitchburg.

He also remembered being stunned by the sight of nearly the entire city gone dark. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen complete darkness (in Leominster).”

For Fitchburg Fire Chief Kevin Roy, he remembered taking the day off to go shopping with his daughter, followed by a dinner at the Olive Garden and when leaving he saw what was happening.

“When we came out, the ice was forming on the fences and rails,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘this doesn’t look good.’”

Conditions worsened with each passing hour, he remembered.

“We started getting calls about branches and wires down, and the next thing you know, by 10 or 11 o’clock transformers started popping on the poles, so power was going out -- it deteriorated fairly rapidly.”

By midnight, with most of the area’s electrical service already out, the early morning hours were interrupted by the incessant sound of ice-encrusted tree limbs snapping from trunks and crashing to the ground.

“After midnight, trees started to come down, one after another,” Mazzarella said. In addition to snapping limbs, he recalled another ominous noise as the storm continued through the overnight hours.

“I can remember the arcing sounds as the transformers began blowing out, one by one.”

When residents awoke they found their homes without lights or heat -- a situation that for many would take days or even weeks to resolve.

Then came the sounds of generators, chain saws, and wood-chippers trying to clear roads and yards of the broken trees.

Leominster Emergency Management Director James LeBlanc, who was a volunteer for the department 10 years ago, recalled the storm quickly going from bad to worse, causing officials to activate the Emergency Management Center during the early morning hours of Dec. 12.

He said the call went out for out-of-state equipment and crews to respond immediately, while local officials quickly prepared for what was to come.

“We opened up Lowe’s and Home Depot to get chainsaws and generators,” he said. “We had a plan, and all the way around, we were on top of our game.”

Mazzarella said he realized early on that the storm would be too much for local utility crews to handle and repair team from as far away as Pennsylvania and North Carolina were called.

“These were experts used to working around live electricity,” he said. The crews were joined by members of the National Guard as the effort to clear roadways and power lines of fallen branches continued.

While state and local officials mobilized, Mother Nature continued to wreak havoc across the region.

“I remember the noise of the trees and the limbs coming down,” LeBlanc recalled. “When I left my house, I was dodging poles and trees just to get in here.” LeBlanc said he lost his front porch and part of his house at the corner of Orchard and Walnut Streets to falling tree limbs.

Mazzarella said city officials gathered well before dawn the next day to prepare to assist residents who were about to wake up without power. Gas-powered generators quickly topped the list of must-need items, and city officials were dispatched across New England to purchase as many as possible.

In Fitchburg, one of the city’s fire trucks was nearly damaged by a falling tree, according to Roy.

“We had a lot of close calls,” he said, adding that the lack of power across the community made things even tougher for emergency crews.

“We had to supply generators to people with medical issues,” he explained. “It kind of just went on and one for days; you kind of just dealt with one crisis and then move on to the next one.”

Meanwhile, emergency crews were hindered in their efforts to get from call to call by trees fallen across roadways.

“You could barely get around town,” he said, adding that the lack of power contributed to several small house fires in the days following the storm.

A major house fire occurred on Green Street as a result of power being restored after several days, Roy said.

Mazzarella said emergency crews in the city developed a novel way to determine which areas of the city were still without power in the days following the storm.

“I remember going through neighborhoods and the only way we could tell if someone had electricity or not was to see if the doorbell light was on,” he said, adding that the measure allowed crews to check on residents without intruding on their efforts to get back to normal. “That’s what we did instead of banging on doors.”

Leominster was one of the first communities to get the power turned back on, according to Mazzarella, an effort he attributes to both the readiness of emergency officials and a community prepared to step up and meet the challenge of getting things back to normal.

He said the city’s achievement did not go unnoticed.

“In fact, in the emergency management world throughout the state, they still talk about how we (responded) and called in help long before anyone realized how bad it would be.”

Is the area ready for another ice storm of the same magnitude?

Most officials said yes.

“We’ve enhanced our emergency operations capability,” LeBlanc explained, adding that the city’s equipment had been updated in the 10 years since the storm. “We’ve got a top-notch fire department, a top-notch DPW, and a mayor who is not afraid to pull in outside resources. I think we’re prepared.”

A similar storm today might not be quite as destructive due to improved tree management across the region, according to Roy.

“There were just too many branches next to main power lines (10 years ago) and the damage was substantial across the grid,” he explained. “The utility companies have made substantial changes to clearing out power lines.”

Mazzarella said that although the city’s resources were tested during the Ice Storm of 2008, he was confident the community was prepared for future storms.

“We have a plan and everyone will do their part to get things back up and running,” he explained.

However, not everyone shares the optimism that the region is prepared for another ice event, especially among residents who were dissatisfied, to put it mildly, at how public utilities Unitil and National Grid responded to the crisis 10-years-ago.

Cathy Clark of Lunenburg was so angry at being left without lights and heat for two weeks that she spearheaded efforts, including a class-action lawsuit, aimed at forcing Unitil to improve its service to customers.

Clark said that although some improvements have been made, residents should not forget how angry they were 10 years ago.

“What occurred after the ice storm highlighted the issues that Unitil has, but being stuck with Unitil -- and ‘stuck’ being the key word -- is a real issue for our entire region.”

In reaction to the company’s lackluster response to the disaster, Clark has pushed for legislation, called “Municipal Choice,” to allow local communities to form their own utilities. She said she was hopeful the bill, which was introduced on Beacon Hill last session, will become a law in the near future. “It’s mind-boggling that the problem has been ignored (for this long).”

Unitil’s Media Relations Manager Alec O’Meara said his company learned several valuable lessons in the storm’s aftermath, and had implemented several new severe weather initiatives, including an enhanced emergency response system, improved tree maintenance, and a real-time social media communications program.

“One of Unitil’s philosophies is to try and learn from every storm that happens, and we’ve had the opportunity in the 10 years since 2008 to take a look at our system and revise it,” he said.

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