Waiting in the cold: Locals endure two frigid days without heat during UGI outage

Milford. A natural gas outage left 1,400 local homes and businesses with scant protection against subzero temperatures last week. The Pike County Emergency Management director said UGI “did a pretty decent job” under terrible circumstances, and will look into ways to improve the response next time.

| 02 Feb 2022 | 04:03

It was negative four degrees outside when Elizabeth Grigas woke up early Thursday morning. It was about five a.m.

The house was “really cold,” she said. “We thought there was something wrong with our furnace at first.”

Grigas is one of nearly 1,400 local UGI customers affected by the utility company’s natural gas outage last week that affected homes in Milford, Westfall Township, and Matamoras.

According to spokesperson Joseph Swope, UGI learned about the problem at around 1 a.m. Thursday morning. The station that feeds natural gas into the Milford area experienced “an equipment failure that disrupted the flow of natural gas through the station,” he said.

UGI sent repair crews Thursday to turn off the gas line at each affected home and business, which was necessary before reintroducing gas to the system.

That first step was completed by around 6 p.m. Thursday evening. Then, UGI personnel had to re-enter each home to restore access to the gas and relight appliances. Eighty boots-on-the-ground employees, many of whom had been working since 7 a.m., started knocking on doors.

Grigas and her husband huddled around a space heater and an electric fireplace until UGI personnel arrived to restore access at 10:30 that night.

But others, including senior couple Kate Horan and Leland Flath, wouldn’t get their heat turned back on until Friday evening.

A miserable night

Worried about keeping the house warm enough to prevent a pipe from bursting, Horan and Flath stayed home throughout the outage. Exposing themselves to Covid at a warming station was also a real concern. Plus, they wouldn’t have been able to bring along their cockapoo, Bailey.

With a fireplace and two space heaters going, the lower level of their home still hovered only between the high forties and low fifties during the day.

They bundled in layers, occasionally throwing clothes into the dryer to warm them, and gathered around their alternate heat sources. The dog, dressed in a sweater of his own but afraid of the crackling and snapping coming from the fireplace, “spent two days shaking and hiding,” said Horan.

When it was time for bed Thursday night, the couple unplugged their heaters and put out the fire to be safe. Upstairs in their bedroom, it was even colder.

“We got into bed and just waited until the sheets warmed up,” said Horan. Even with extra blankets, “it was miserable.”

A waiting game

When UGI personnel first began restoring access at 6 p.m. Thursday evening, they started with a list of critical infrastructure provided by the Pike County Office of Emergency Management: Belle Reve senior living center, Milford Senior Care, Milford Fire Department, Westfall Senior Apartments, and the Pike County Administrative Building, which operates as the area’s backup 911 center and is a major part of the county’s radio network.

UGI also first prioritized customers who told UGI they were in especially high-risk situations, with medical issues or special needs that could lead to “a life threatening situation,” said Swope of UGI.

Otherwise, each of the 80 UGI employees were given batches of homes to restore. They would complete a batch, report back to the control center, and receive a new list of addresses. They worked throughout the night until approximately 2:30 a.m. on Friday morning and were back out on the road by 7 a.m.

Homeowners, meanwhile, waited anxiously by their windows on the lookout for UGI trucks.

“That was the hardest part, not knowing anything,” said Horan. “That makes it very hard to withstand the physical discomfort because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

The couple was dismayed to see a UGI truck disappear after their visit to a neighbor’s house.

“My husband was looking out the window and saw the UGI truck across the street, two houses away,” said Horan. “And he went out on the porch to make sure they saw us. And all of a sudden he left the house, got in his truck, got up to where we were, did a U-turn, and sped away.”

Horan and her neighbors were confused by the way UGI employees hop-scotched homes instead of just going down street in order. On local Facebook groups, social media users also expressed frustration about the order in which homes were being restored.

Swope said two things could have happened in the Horan case: some blocks were split among multiple UGI employees, with two trucks working in opposite directions. In other cases, UGI employees had to backtrack while in the middle of a run, revisiting homes that initially did not have someone to grant entry, when alerted that the owner was available.

“In fairness to UGI, in a terrible situation, I think they did a pretty decent job,” said Pike County Emergency Management Director Tim Knapp. “Are there things we could correct? Yeah, there is. There always are, no matter what the emergency is.”

Knapp and his team plan to gather feedback over the next couple of months and create a report “to see what we can change in the future,” and improve the county’s emergency response to outages such as this one.

Horan and Flath’s home was one of the last to have its natural gas restored at around 4:30 p.m. Friday evening. “The poor guy was exhausted,” said Horan. By 7 p.m. that night, the house was finally starting to warm back up.

“It took such a long time and the system was so unorganized,” said Horan. “That’s what’s most frustrating.”

Thursday January 27:
1 a.m. UGI starts getting calls about a gas outage. 1,400 customers in the Milford area are affected. A mechanical failure at the station that feeds natural gas into the area must be fixed before customer access can be restored.
7 a.m.: Eighty UGI personnel from throughout Pennsylvania are dispatched to the Milford area. They begin going to each affected home and business to shut off gas lines.
11 a.m.: Warming centers are set up at Delaware Valley Elementary School, Sunshine Station, Milford Bible Church, and Area Agency on Aging Senior Centers.
3 p.m.: Milford Borough establishes four overnight warming centers.
6 p.m.: UGI crews finish shutting off gas lines. UGI reintroduces gas to the system. 80 boots-on-the-ground UGI personnel must go back to each of the 1,400 affected homes and businesses, and be granted entry in order to restore access and re-light appliances. Critical infrastructure and homes with high-risk individuals are restored first. UGI personnel continue knocking on doors throughout the night.
Friday, January 28:
2:30 a.m. UGI employees, in need of sleep, and with few residents answering their doors late so at night, pause their efforts to get some rest.
7 a.m.: UGI employees continue going to each home and business to restore access.
12:30 p.m.: Approximately 950 homes and businesses’ natural gas has been restored.
5 p.m.: UGI wraps up restoration efforts; nearly all customers have their gas restored, except those who had no one available to grant entry to UGI employees.
“That was the hardest part, not knowing anything. That makes it very hard to withstand the physical discomfort because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.” Kate Horan