PROVINCETOWN — The select board praised frontline responders for their work during the Jan. 29 blizzard but had tough questions for Town Manager Alex Morse, who they said was unreachable during much of the storm.
The blizzard hit Provincetown with hurricane-force winds, heavy snow, frigid temperatures, and a day-long power outage. According to state data, 100 percent of Provincetown was without power from 7 a.m. to about 10:15 p.m. Saturday. Several hundred properties did not get electricity back until the next morning.
At a Feb. 2 meeting, the select board and Morse praised the police, fire, and public works depts., the harbormaster’s office, and the council on aging. Town staff helped dig out generators, clear snow away from vents, rescue stranded motorists, and transport people to safer locations during the storm, according to Morse’s summary.
But the board questioned the decision not to open a warming station until 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, and it roundly criticized the communication failure on Saturday.
Between an “advisory alert” from town hall sent at 11:17 a.m. Friday and a message at 6:46 p.m. Saturday, there were no public communications from the town. Apparently, even select board members were unable to reach Morse for most of that time.
During a late October nor’easter, Emergency Management Coordinator Rex McKinsey sent out four alerts in a similar time span, but during the latest storm he sent no public messages at all.
“We were unable to contact you during the storm,” board chair David Abramson said, “and we were left, then — okay, who do we call next?”
“We should be informed about what the plan is,” said board member Louise Venden. “Nobody had any answers.”
“I acknowledge that this is unacceptable, and I take responsibility for that,” Morse said. He said he was in constant communication with the police chief and with Eversource, among others. There was no explanation of why board members could not reach Morse.
Neither did Morse’s written summary mention McKinsey or what he was doing during the storm.
“I’d like for you at the next select board meeting to give us an update,” said board member Leslie Sandberg.
Warming Station Closed
Morse told the board that preparations had been made on Friday to open a warming station at the Veterans Memorial Community Center (VMCC), including positioning of charging towers, supplies, and personal protective equipment. Travel on Saturday was so risky, however, that “we ended up pivoting to shelter in place,” Morse said. “We stand by our decision. We didn’t want to encourage residents to travel by car or even by foot. Those who did attempt to travel found themselves stranded, which required first responders to divert time and resources away from other pressing calls.”
Board members Sandberg and Bobby Anthony disagreed with Morse’s decision.
“It just takes a weight off, knowing that I can call the police department and I can preserve my insulin by going to the warming station,” said Anthony.
Sandberg said the town should proactively call the most vulnerable and offer to transport them before the storm strikes. “You have cots, you have food, and you have a place for them to ride the storm out,” she said.
Venden questioned the suitability of the VMCC in a winter storm. The building is on a hill, she noted, and neither Winslow Street nor Jerome Smith Road are “designated snow-plowing areas,” despite being the only roads to the building.
“Maybe we should think about having an alternate available,” said Venden.
Morse said the guidelines for warming stations and shelters need further airing. Barnstable County shifted to a shelter-in-place message midway through Saturday morning, Morse said, but also kept shelters open “as a last resort.”
There is a difference between shelters and warming stations, even though the terms are sometimes interchanged. Warming and charging stations are meant for short visits of a few hours, while shelters provide more comprehensive services, including meals and sleeping areas. During this storm, the nearest shelter to Provincetown was Nauset High School in Eastham, 22 miles away.
Provincetown opened the warming station at the VMCC at 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Truro, Wellfleet, and Chatham also opened warming centers Sunday morning. Only four people came to the VMCC before it closed at 4 p.m. Sunday.
The select board was more interested in the lack of options on Saturday night.
“When the sun starts to go down here and the power’s out, everybody gets a little nervous, because we know it’s going to get even colder,” said Abramson.
“People were scared, they were cold, and they were isolated,” said Sandberg. “Let’s not do that again.”
Eversource or Neversource?
Sandberg also raised the frequency of blackouts on the Outer Cape.
“The power was lost when the frail Circuit 96 caused us to be cut off from the power grid,” Morse told the board. “This circuit has been the culprit in our last four outages and is one of the main reasons they are installing the community battery in town.”
“I would like to see Eversource come in front of the select board,” Sandberg said. “It’s time for them to fix the electrical grid in this part of the state. Covid is no longer an excuse” for the delay in the battery project, she added.
Eversource did provide a generator to the Provincetown Fire Dept. when its own generator failed, Morse said.
“Power went out on their generator with voltage problems,” said Morse, “and their garage door openers also started to malfunction.”
In his report, Morse wrote, “Personnel were answering calls and trying to figure out how to make the doors work so they could close them and open them to get the apparatus out to calls.”
“The reason we’re having this meeting tonight is because what happened on Saturday can never happen again,” said Abramson.
The board asked Morse to report back on both storm preparation and communications at the next regular meeting on Monday, Feb. 14.