No major damage, but storm reveals island’s fragility

Fri, 03/09/2018 - 8:45am
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The nor’easter that blew through the northeast on March 1 and 2 hit some coastal regions very hard, and even though Block Island pushed through the 65 mile-per-hour winds with tree damage and flooding, some people who keep an eye on the island’s ecology were somewhat alarmed with what they saw in its aftermath.

Residents Nigel Grindley and Kim Gaffett have each filed brief reports about coastal flooding and damage to the bluffs, as well as the continuing exposure of waste at West Beach. Resident Chris Warfel has also provided information on how a new kind of snow fencing fared during the storm.

From a much more immediate perspective, Block Island Power Company President Jeffery Wright, Power Company Chief Operating Officer Howell Conant, and Highways Department Supt. Mike Shea and their crews spent time preparing for the storm and dealing with its aftermath.

Shea said the storm did not pose any special problems or dangers, either during or after. There were no reports of any extensive property damage.

“We’re just cleaning up trees. There were places that had to be cleaned up a couple of times, like Settler’s Rock and Corn Neck Road,” he said. Crews were out “keeping things flowing and cleaning up after the high tides and finishing up with the trees that came down.” On Wednesday morning, March 7, Shea said he did not expect any significant impact from the second nor’easter that was expected on Wednesday, March 8.

Conant praised BIPCo line crews and plant managers for the amount of work that goes into preparing for a major storm event.

“One of the things that people don’t really see is the tremendous amount of preparation at the plant that happens before these storms. There’s a rather significant preparation that is put into place to be certain that we can monitor the six main distribution circuits on the island,” Conant said. “With those six circuits we can identify where problems exist, and we can open and close a circuit so that line crews can operate safely and minimize interruptions to other customers.

Conant also said the power company has to keep an eye on the Wind Farm’s transmission cable in case anything disrupts that service during a storm.

“We’re monitoring our voltage and the condition of our interconnect cable to the mainland. If we ever need to switch from that cable because of a problem on the mainland, we need to be prepared as expeditiously as possible to switch to our generators. We need to have our fuel supplies ready to go for Block Island backup. It’s an intricate choreography of steps that Plant Operator Dick Martin and Asst. Plant Manager Dave Milner and myself have prepared to make that switching happen quickly and safely if we ever need to do it.”

Wright reported that his team was a bit diminished because of school vacation, which coincided with the storm.

“We were so lucky to have some great help from the Haugland Storm Response Team, as well as our trusted tree crew from Davey Tree. We were short-staffed due to school vacation, so we relied heavily on the Haugland team,” said Wright. “The crew had been here for routine pole replacement work the week prior so the timing was good. When the forecast got worse on Thursday, though, we flew in some reinforcements from Long Island which turned out to be a good move. We experienced about a dozen separate outages that affected about 350 different customers. Our largest outage was on the High Street Circuit. We had two different problems, a broken main line pole in Ebbett's Hollow and a downed mainline conductor right here at the office. The customers on Upper High Street were out the longest; about 24 hours. We only had two broken poles but the one in Ebbetts Hollow was in a terrible location and was very difficult to change.”

Wright spent the day and night of the storm updating where power outages were occurring on the island, and when they had been repaired.

“We really put our efforts in communicating the problem areas and provided estimated times of restoration. We have received overwhelming positive feedback from that. It seems everyone really enjoyed the outage map so we are working now to provide that to everyone on our new website that should launch by the end of the month,” said Wright. “Everyone on the Island was very patient and supportive of us as we worked. The local eateries were super supportive and we thank them. Feeding and housing crews is always a priority and we had a lot of help making that seamless.”

Wright thanked New England Airlines for its help in transporting workers. “On Thursday evening, just hours before the storm started, they were able to fly to East Hampton Airport on Long Island to pick up three additional line workers which turned out to be the best decision we made.”  

Wright also told The Times that the high winds during the storm detached a ground wire that National Grid will be addressing on March 15. A ground wire safely disperses electricity that has been built up during a malfunction.

Wright called the damage to the interconnection a “minor issue,” but added that National Grid may “take an emergency outage to make the repairs. We’d take two short outages to transfer to and back from the generators while the work is being done.” 

On a final note, island resident Pam Gasner cautioned anyone walking on the beach or near the bluffs to be aware that the over-hangs on the bluffs are heavily saturated and could pose a danger to those below.