Worse Than Blizzard of ‘78

In the annals of Central Massachusetts, the ice storm of this past December 11-12 is rated as worse than the Blizzard of ’78 in severity and hardship for many members.

With little warning, other than expected freezing rain on the eve of December 11, members were awakened during the night by a widespread power outage and the sound of trees snapping. When dawn arrived it appeared that he world had returned to a veritable Ice Age. And winter was still 10 days away.

Although the City of Worcester suffered devastating damage, it was the plight of members in rural areas of Worcester County that had no choice but to leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere until power could be restored – in some cases not until Christmas Eve – that pulled at our heartstrings.

When contact was finally made with many of these members, here is a sample of what we heard:

"I’m a late bloomer (age 60) with a wife age 39. We have 5 kids ages 3 to 12… no heat, lots of damage. Called all hotels in area with my cell phone… no rooms available… ended up in a motel in Billerica for 3 nights… made round of all Home Depot’s seeking generator… long lines, no luck… finally found one in Auburn… still waiting for adjuster to assess damage." David Connarty, Ashby. Former Lowell probation officer.

"Just out of hospital with surgery two days prior to storm… power out, no heat… took wife to Cape cottage… had to come back and pick up in-laws who were freezing in their home… daughter contacted me from her cell phone… Fitchburg Fire Dept. had 2 gas sump pumps working on my cellar, which flooded because my sump pump had no power… dozens of trees crashed… destroyed my shed… utility company’s (UNITIL) failure to communicate with Fitchburg borders on the criminal… no response on their service line, only a recording which wouldn’t recognize my number as a customer (cell phone)… I’ve been popping double strength vicodon for 12 days." Dick Freedman, 64, Fitchburg. Former Mass. Rehab Commission.

"It was a terrible plight… UNITIL, our provider, was of no help, they were terrible… wasn’t until 9 days later that National Grid came and restored power… meanwhile, I stayed with a friend who had a wood stove… there is no town water here, only wells, but no power for pumps… we carried water from a brook for cooking, washing and toilet… I had saved several gallons of drinking water for emergencies." Faith Antilla, 76, Ashby. Former Fitchburg State College.

"We lost power about 2:30 am… sound of cracking trees near house forced husband and I to sleep in basement… temperature in house dropped to 40 degrees… 4 generations of family gathered around fireplace, but wood ran out… youngest daughter, 2 year old son and husband took shelter in Gardner Middle School… husband and I also stayed in Middle School… eldest daughter found hotel room in Leominster… eventually we left shelter and were able to stay in hotel… my husband was able to buy a generator, vowing never to go through this again… thank you to Senator Flanagan and Rep. Rice… also to National Guard and line crews from other states." Catherine Rahain, Gardner. Former Gardner Teacher.

"We live in a pocket southwest of Worcester, including Leicester, Paxton and Holden tat were severely hammered by the ice storm, while towns 20 miles in another direction were unscathed… I heard about Fitchburg… couldn’t have been worse than here… granddaughter next door moved her new Nissan to my yard… afraid of trees hear her house… no luck, car was crushed by tree next to my driveway… thought we would never get electricity back… everyone was looking for generators… Blizzard of ’78 was a picnic compared to this… can’t stand the cold at my age… we had heat in ’78." Al Nash, 87 Leicester. Former UMass Hospital, Worcester.

Members who lived in communities served by National Grid for the most part fared better than those in cities or towns whose power utility was UNITIL.

Fitchburg, for example, a UNITIL city, was without power or service for longer than neighboring Leominster, which is served by National Grid.

The same held true in most towns. National Grid was able to provide greater manpower and outside help in a shorter period of time. In some cases, National Grid was able to provide assistance to UNITIL customers.

In January, the head of UNITIL sent a letter of apology to its customers in north central Mass. and southern New Hampshire, blaming "extraordinarily severe damage to major electrical circuits." In Lunenburg, 300 residents signed a petition asking the town to change power companies.

To be fair, Oliver Mutch, Ashby’s retired police chief said that UNITIL "did the best it could under the circumstances." He said, "the men from Pennsylvania that were helping out UNITIL did a wonderful, professional job and responded as quick as possible, this was an unprecedented storm."

As is the case in most severe acts of nature, neighbors stepped forward to help each other. Across the border in hard-hit Rindge, New Hampshire, the home of Karen Jeffries became a refuge for neighbors and friends.

"A twist of fate known as the Y2K non-event had prompted my husband to invest in a generator," said Jeffries, a retired Fitchburg teacher. "Our house became a hub. Some came and stayed. Others came to take showers, do laundry and warm up for a while. In this age of the ‘Nuclear Family’ we all need each other."

Nearly a million homes in New England lost power in the storm, but restoring it was particularly slow in Central Massachusetts. In December, Governor Patrick asked then-President Bush for federal disaster assistance. Aid was asked for cities and towns in Worcester, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Berkshire Counties.

The following member's reports could not be included in the March Edition of the Voice, due to space limitations. However, due to the severity of the storms and in the interest of our members we have included them here:

"Lost power night of Dec 11…had to seek shelter with family and hotels…arrived home to find ruptured water pipe in our furnace which damaged bedroom and hallway…damaged furnace, electronics and plumbing…repair will run over $10,000…insurance will pay some but we don’t know how much yet…My son who lives with me requires cpap for sleep apnea…got no assistance from P.S.N.H. even though his is first on service list…we were on our own in Monadnock region of New Hampshire, got nailed as bad as Massachusetts." Grace Cook, 85, Miford, NH. Arlington School Dept.

"For us the power went out at 9:50 am, December 11…an ice-covered tree went down taking all connections to the house down…police came by next day, told us (wife Penny) we should go to shelter in Townsend-Hawthorn Middle School…Fire Dept. helped clear driveway…came home after six days…electric company tied line to tree…phone and cable hooked up 5 days later…Have never seen as many trees and wires down, looked like a war zone…On brighter side, our 15-year-old painted turtle went to the shelter with us and survived with flying colors." Raymond Wilkinson, 88, Ashby. State Dept of Environmental Mgt.

"Ashby was truly struck hard in the ice storm…wife Sally and I fared pretty well…we carried water in pails from an ice barrel under the eves for washing and flushing…Being on main drag (Rte. 119) we were luckier than many other townspeople…some did not have power until just before Christmas…Agencies within town responded admirably…fire and police depts., and even Dan Munier (selectman) was stopping by houses to check on well-being…Unitil demonstrated lack of preparedness and inability to deal with public in a reasonable way…Many residents looking for alternative methods of producing own energy sources." George Bauman, 73, Ashby. Former West Springfield school principal.

"The power went out at approximately 1:30 am on 12/12…Out for five days…was an experience I never want to go through again…no power, no heat–it was like an ice house…I live alone and fortunately my niece did not loose power…I had some great meals at her house…Heard about folks up in Ashby way…guess I shouldn’t complain too much after what they went through." Ed Cecchini, Clinton. Former State DPW.

"I was without power for seven days…lost all the food in freezer and refrigerator…have only a small wood stove…have lived in the same house and raised a family since 1952…Never had such a miserable problem with the power. Unitil is not worth mentioning in one breath." Louise Thibault, Ashby. Retired from Middlesex County Highway Dept.

"We were without power for nine days…were able to purchase a generator on ‘day six’ and hire electricians; it was then a major issue to get gas cans…Have town water, opted to stay with the house to prevent frozen pipes…alternated flushing toilets and running water…Kept the fireplace burning 24/7 and used a cord of wood. Our thermostats stop at 42 degrees, how much lower it was, we do no know…Disappointed with Unitil…billed us for several days when power was out…Also disappointed with homeowners insurance company, Horace Mann/Commerce for doing nothing to help us in this state’s disaster." Bonita Martin, Lunenburg. Former Townsend teacher.

"My wife Eileen was a library assistant at Montachusett Regional Voc.Tech. in Fitchburg…Retired in 1987 and now as Alzheimer’s…Ice storm was devastating to Monadnock area…lost power for 12 days…had to place Eileen in rest home..I am 90 years old and not capable, due to arthritis, of providing necessary care…we do have 3 caregivers who were also affected by this devastating storm…I will have Eileen stay at the rest home for the month of January…this will provide us both with respite care." Albert Sylvestro. Rindge, New Hampshire.

"The towns of Becket, Savoy, Florida, Cummington, Windsor and Peru received massive damage out here in Berkshire county…I was without electricity for 8 days…used small gas generator which had to be refilled every 2 hours…not much time to sleep…have wood stove as well as outdoor wood furnace which pumps hot water heat into the house…my water is pumped from a spring…30 acres of land…bought a new, large generator at Home Depot in Chicopee where my daughter works…won’t be caught unprepared again…lots of trees down on my land…missed house." Peter Menard, 80, Windsor. Former Berkshire County Commissioner.