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Shirley nailed by ice storm, town learns from experience

Nashoba Publishing/John Love
A car passes along Center Road with ice-laden trees on either side.

SHIRLEY — Power has been restored to Shirley Village and most outlying areas, but there are still wires and trees down in scattered places around town.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” town administrator Kyle Keady said about the aftermath of the bruising ice storm last Thursday night. As an icy rain continued and temperatures dropped that night and the next morning, the thick coating of ice brought down limbs, trees and power lines, leaving thousands in the dark and crippling communities across the state and the region.

Several days later, Shirley is still struggling.

“It’s been a long weekend,” said Keady, who’s been making the rounds to view the devastation for himself and assess where the power outages continue.

As of Monday morning, crews from National Grid — the power company serving most of Shirley — were hard at work and had restored service to most areas. Exceptions on Tuesday morning included sections of Squannacook Road, Pumpkin Brook Road (which is served by Until, of Townsend), Lawton Road and the Holden and Whitney Road area, which were hit especially hard. Selectmen Chairman Enrico Cappucci, for example, had his porch roof heavily damaged on Holden Road and trees were down everywhere.

One Whitney Road resident, who works as a nurse at MCI Shirley’s medium-security infirmary, said that during the storm on Thursday night, it took her over an hour to get home from work, a trip that typically takes 10 minutes. Roads she usually takes were blocked by fallen trees, she said.

Thursday night, during the storm, a downed wire on Lawton Road crossed a driveway and started a small brush fire that flared up amid a drenching downpour. The Fire Department responded but firefighters were unable to get near the live wire and were also unable to contact National Grid to cut off the power. After the fire truck left, a police officer stationed his cruiser in a nearby driveway until the power was cut and the fire was extinguished by the rain.

Also shuttered by the storm was the Bull Run Restaurant on Great Road, which raised eyebrows. The Bull Run is known for hardly ever closing, except this time they shut down during the day on Friday and remained closed until Monday afternoon.

Weather predictions for the rest of this week look ominous, with snow, sleet, rain and freezing temperatures ahead. That forecast has National Grid stepping up the pace to get all of Shirley’s trouble spots cleared before the next storm hits, Keady said.

Although there was only one resident still at Shirley’s emergency shelter in the Middle School by Tuesday morning, interim Superintendent of Schools Malcolm “Mac” Reid said that school would be closed Wednesday.

By Wednesday morning, things had improved substantially. “If we’re not 100 percent, we’re close,” Keady said. Holden and Whitney roads, lower Squannacook and Lawton roads and Center Road had all been restored. “Everyone should be up,” he said, although he questioned the status of several areas, such as Pumpkin Brook and a stretch of Garrison Road.

Asked what set this storm apart from others, Keady said it was its magnitude. Power lines can withstand about a half-inch of ice, but this storm deposited over an inch, he said.

Another issue affecting power restoration is that each problem must be addressed in sequence. For example, the substations must be restored before crews can repair the distribution lines along the roads. Then, individual homes are last on the list, by necessity and not caprice. With 300 poles and 100 primary service areas affected, the sequence makes it possible to pinpoint problem areas, Keady said.

“Once they started on the distribution lines, things moved fast,” Keady said. He had no complaints about National Grid’s response and in fact praised the lines of communication that were in play after the storm. He now knows much more than he knew before about the system, he said wryly, and established useful contacts with the power company in the process.

On the home front, town departments cooperated with their usual harmony, Keady said, adding that his phone was — and still is — a hub. He’s been in near-constant contact with the Police and Fire chiefs and the DPW director, he said.

Schools remain closed through the week, but the emergency shelter the Fire Department had operated at the Shirley Middle School was closed Wednesday.

The one remaining area without power on Wednesday was Pumpkin Brook Road on the Townsend line, assistant town administrator Kathleen Rocco said. There are about a dozen homes there, all served by Townsend’s utility company, Unitil.

Townsend residents can access that town’s emergency shelter at Hawthorne Brooke Middle School, should they need it. But Shirley has not forgotten them and will be keeping a close eye on the situation, Rocco said.

Recapping the utility company’s approach, Keady said there were 90 line crews and 81 crews clearing road debris on the Saturday after the storm. The next day, those numbers had increased to 531 line crews and 252 tree crews. In addition, 250 additional field personnel were dispatched to deal with the storm’s aftermath, Keady said.

Many are still out there, with crews called in from across the state. The final tally on Keady’s desk was 600 line crews and 280 tree crews. “All these things came together,” he said, calling the effort “triage.” Cleanup continues. The next step will be getting rid of road and yard debris from the storm.

Asked if the town can tap into federal emergency funds via the state’s emergency management agency, MEMA, Keady said he’s looking into that.