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How to prepare for snowstorm's power outages

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 11:08 a.m. MST

Edgewater resident Soonmee Lee cleans show from her car at the Municipal Parking Lot in Fort Lee, N.J. as a winter storm hits the region on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.  (The Record of Bergen County, Marko Georgiev) ONLINE OUT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT;  NO ARCHIVING; MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press) Edgewater resident Soonmee Lee cleans show from her car at the Municipal Parking Lot in Fort Lee, N.J. as a winter storm hits the region on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. (The Record of Bergen County, Marko Georgiev) ONLINE OUT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT; NO ARCHIVING; MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press)

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.

TV monitors at Logan International Airport in Boston show cancelled flights Friday morning, Feb. 8, 2013.  Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts was under a blizzard warning until 1 p.m. Saturday. Logan International Airport said it would try to stay open during the storm but airlines had already canceled many flights through Saturday.  (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press) TV monitors at Logan International Airport in Boston show cancelled flights Friday morning, Feb. 8, 2013. Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts was under a blizzard warning until 1 p.m. Saturday. Logan International Airport said it would try to stay open during the storm but airlines had already canceled many flights through Saturday. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

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.

A man and his passenger ride a three-wheeled bike in the borough of Manhattan during a snow storm on Friday, Feb. 8 2013, in New York. The storm that forecasters warned could be a blizzard for the history books began clobbering the New York-to-Boston corridor on Friday, grounding flights, closing workplaces and sending people rushing to get home ahead of a possible 1 to 3 feet of snow.  (Peter Morgan, Associated Press) A man and his passenger ride a three-wheeled bike in the borough of Manhattan during a snow storm on Friday, Feb. 8 2013, in New York. The storm that forecasters warned could be a blizzard for the history books began clobbering the New York-to-Boston corridor on Friday, grounding flights, closing workplaces and sending people rushing to get home ahead of a possible 1 to 3 feet of snow. (Peter Morgan, Associated Press)

"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 customer leaves Taft Power Equipment in Holyoke, Mass.  as new snow blowers line the entrance on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.   Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency Friday and banned travel on roads as of 4 p.m. as a blizzard that could bring nearly 3 feet of snow to the region began to intensify. As the storm gains strength, it will bring A customer leaves Taft Power Equipment in Holyoke, Mass. as new snow blowers line the entrance on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency Friday and banned travel on roads as of 4 p.m. as a blizzard that could bring nearly 3 feet of snow to the region began to intensify. As the storm gains strength, it will bring "extremely dangerous conditions" with bands of snow dropping up to 2 to 3 inches per hour at the height of the blizzard, Patrick said. (The Republican, Dave Roback, Associated Press)

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.

John Silver shovels snow between buried cars in front of his home on Third Street in South Boston, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013.  (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press) John Silver shovels snow between buried cars in front of his home on Third Street in South Boston, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

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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