It's Friday night. The power is (finally) back on. I had a great dinner with the family, cooked in our own home. The dogs are back from the kennel. Life is pretty much back to normal after Irene made her cameo appearance during the weekend.
Tomorrow, like so many other Saturdays, I'll attack the yardwork. This time, however, I'll be busy cleaning up the remnants of the storm damage and returning the lawn furniture and patio sets from their temporary residence in the garage.
Whether Irene was a Cat 1 hurricane or a tropical storm by the time it hit New England is irrelevant... we were hit pretty hard. Vermont, of all places, certainly bore the brunt of Irene's torrential rains and my thoughts and prayers are with the thousands in that state who are still trying to pick up the pieces. My heart just goes out to them.
By contrast, the inconveniences my family encountered are minor. We lost a few trees, had a bit of water in the basement, but everyone - person and pet alike - came through unscathed. The storm, however, did not come without a cost.
Like nearly half a million fellow Massachusetts residents, my home lost power... quite early on Sunday morning, in fact. We spent the day keeping a wary eye on the storm and listening to the news reports on a transistor radio. We played cards, even watched a movie on one of the many iSomethingorothers that were charged-up and at the ready. And, like everyone else, we waited for the electricity to return. Day slipped into evening. Evening into night. Still no power.
Come Monday morning, the town was waking up. The air was filled with the sound of chainsaws and generators and people were milling about their property, assessing damage and developing gameplans. As neighbor chatted with neighbor, snippets of information began to trickle through. Some homes on the other side of town had power, but most did not. Someone else heard it could take as long as a week to have power restored. No one chose to believe it but, given the total absence of National Grid trucks on our streets, it was abundantly clear that it would take some time. We could live without lights but, since our water comes from a private well on our property, no electricity means no well pump and no running water. Not good.
Additionally, my employer's corporate headquarters are in Michigan, so most of my work is conducted at my home office. All I need is my laptop, a phone, an Internet connection and a webcam for videoconferencing and I'm all set. However, no power means no work. I tried a few local hotels to see if they could accommodate us, but most were either fully booked or not large enough for this family of five. We eventually decided to book a room in Mystic, CT. It's an hour away, but at least my wife and kids could go and have some fun and leave me the hotel room (and it's free Wi-Fi connection) so I could put in a full week. Not ideal, but we made it work.
We were able to return to our home yesterday morning and I was thrilled to see everything was in-tact and operational. Last evening, I was balancing our checkbook and tallied the costs for our little impromptu vacation. I wish I didn't.
- Replacing spoiled food: ~ $450-$500
- Hotel room @ $150/night: $450
- Meals for family of 5 X 3 days: $350
- Kennel fees for boarding dogs: $220
- Boarding fee for cockatiel: $16
For those of you keeping score at home, that's roughly $1,500 of damage caused not by Irene, but by a slow-to-respond utility: National Grid.
I completely understand that forces of nature can not be controlled. I further understand the impact such severe storms can have on an aging electricity infrastructure. What I can not understand, however, is how one company can simply throw up their hands and say "we can't be bothered" when it comes to customer service.
I tried connecting with this company in every way imaginable, but could not connect with a single human being until mid-week.
Some of the more classic moments: - Calling the customer support number and hearing a message suggesting I call back later in the week - Receiving a 'window' of power restoration that was 48-96 hours wide - Receiving voicemails from National Grid instructing me to visit their website for more information (which wouldn't be such a bad suggestion if their site was smartphone-friendly)
I later learned that National Grid was embracing the digital age and providing contact and support via Twitter. So I pinged the Twitterverse for information and, lo and behold, I received a Tweet from National Grid within minutes asking me if they could help. I asked about getting an accurate timeframe for power restoration. No response.
Then someone informed me I could sign-up to receive texts from National Grid and have updates "pushed" to my phone as soon as information became available. Maybe three times is a charm, I thought, so I signed up. Here's a record of the text messages I received:
8/29 - 5:34 PM NG: Crews working 24/7 to restore power. There's significant flooding, widespread damage & outages in MA, RI, NY & NH. We thank you for your patience.
8/30 - 12:05 PM NG: Power restored to 335K of 500K affected in MA. Using all resources to access hard to reach areas. Expect to have restoration estimates by end of day.
8/31 - 11:48 AM
NG: Power restored to 400K of 500K affected in MA. If your power is out, you can get an ETR by calling <
When I called the phone number on Wednesday, I finally spoke with a human being. The operator informed me that my power could be restored that night... or it could be Friday... or it could be Sunday.
Frustrated, I spent a few minutes surfing the web to see if there were any public 'official' comments from National Grid on their response to the storm. One of the first hits that returned was an interview with Marcy Reed, President of National Grid, on the 96.9FM website.
I listened intently to see if I could discern some glimmer of hope or some nugget of new information. Instead, I heard Miss Reed a) acknowledging that utilities need to be able to handle storms... that it comes with the territory, and b) she's proud of the way her company's phone-based support has been dealing with the situation. A highlight for her: "they've been sympathetic."
At what point in time did it become okay for an executive to be content with "sympathetic" support personnel while hundreds of thousands of paying customers sat in the dark? I wanted to hear an admission of unpreparedness. I wanted to hear that she knows her team is working hard but that they need to kick it up a notch. I wanted to hear the Bill Belichick of utility executives. Instead, I heard the "there, there" tone of the 'everyone gets a trophy' crowd.
According to a recent article on InvestorPlace.com, National Grid's revenue and profits have been climbing steadily since 2007. This article had a few eyebrow-raising tidbits of information - including the fact that Miss Reed was on vacation in Hawaii as the storm was steaming up the coast - but none more telling than this line: "... that’s the beauty of (National Grid's) market dominance — it can treat customers badly and still make a nice profit."
And there you have it. Dollars and cents.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm a card-carrying, flag-waving, free-market-economy-embracing conservative. However, something is really wrong in business today. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the fact that you can do the right thing, take care of your employees and your customers and STILL turn a profit. Anyone can make a few bucks by cutting corners and laying people off. It's takes a skilled leader to get an organization firing on all cylinders. That's how you build a brand. That's how you build a foundation.
When I was young, I seem to remember a different spirit that was pervasive in the business world... a spirit that carried with it a sort of pride in doing the right thing. "Sure the company hit some hard times, but we made it through and we didn't have to lay a single person off." That line in particular seems to resonate in my brain - whether it's a sound bite from a news report I happened to catch in my youth or simply a hazy, nostalgic, rose colored glasses view of a time that never was. Regardless, I wish MORE corporations in America acted in such a way.
So what is it going to take to reboot our system and get it back to where it needs to be? I keep hearing that consumers are going to be the engines that get this economy cranking again, yet we keep getting screwed - victims of the curse of low expectations and a "good enough is good enough" mentality. Where did that come from and, more importantly, how do we eradicate that way of thinking? Is this the inevitable result of outsourcing so much work and eliminating so many jobs here at home? Is it our fault for letting companies get away with a "press 1 for assistance" approach to customer service?
I'm not sure exactly where things went off the rails, but the end result is something that hundreds of thousands of New Englanders experienced this week. No support. No response. And, in more ways than one, no power.