While utility officials lauded their response to Tropical Storm Irene during a legislative hearing today, leaders of local towns castigated those efforts, saying the storm response was in such disarray that some work crews sat for hours doing nothing while residents struggled without power, and that even company liaisons sent out to work with the towns had no way to get hold of their supervisors for information.
For nearly two hours this afternoon the town leaders detailed the problems they had with CL&P and other utilities, including United Illuminating, AT&T and Comcast, throughout and after the storm. Some described their inability to get CL&P to cut power to live lines in situations where residents and local emergency officials were in direct danger from downed lines.
They also said CL&P’s communication with other major telecommunication companies was so abysmal that in one instance an AT&T official asked a town leader to help them get in touch with CL&P.
They described how some out-of-state work crews who had come in to help CL&P ended up sleeping in their trucks for hours because there was no one to tell them where to work.
“You can’t even make this stuff up, I’m not kidding,” said Joyce Okonuk, first selectwoman of Lebanon. “What if this was a Category 2 (hurricane)? What if this was the middle of winter and this was an ice storm?”
“I frankly don’t think CL&P could do a worse job if they tried. They are an embarrassment to themselves,” said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. “I don’t know how many more mistakes they could have made.”
Prague was one of about three dozen legislators who heard testimony today during the first of two public hearings the General Assembly is holding this week and next on the statewide response to the storm.
Much of the ire among town officials was directed at CL&P.
Okonuk said she was taken aback by testimony earlier in the day by the company’s president, Jim Butler, who said his utility’s response to Irene was “appropriate and strong.”
“Clearly this gentleman has absolutely no idea of the real world,” Okonuck said. “Our experience was very different from the picture he’s painting. I feel like we’re in two different worlds.”
At one point while her town was completely without power, Okonuk said, she found an out-of-state CL&P crew asleep in their truck. When she asked them why, the crew told her they’d been there for hours and couldn’t work because no one from CL&P had told them where to begin.
Other crews assigned to her town, Okonuck said, spent hours one morning waiting in the town’s library for instructions from their supervisors.
“They didn’t get the safety briefing or the buffet breakfast Mr. Butler spoke of. There was no communication. It was horrible.”
Catherine Iino, the first selectwoman of Killingworth, said communication between CL&P and other utilities was so bad that at one point an AT&T official asked for her help in getting in touch with CL&P.
“It seems to me these are huge corporations, with huge resources, and they should be communicating with each other,” Iino said.
She also said that CL&P’s response to the storm was “kind of a joke” in her town.
Rudy Marconi, the first selectman of Ridgefield, said the company’s performance after the storm indicates a “systemic failure” in leadership that the legislature and other agencies need to address.
“We pay the highest electric rates in the nation and look at the service we got. The DPUC needs to wake up. Something needs to be done.”
Many town leaders also said CL&P failed to meet basic communication needs after the storm and failed to give town leaders basic updates on power restoration efforts.
“I could get no information from CL&P as to when people were going to get there and where we were on their priority list,” said Brian Sear, the first selectman of Canterbury.
Sear said most residents in his town understood that power could be out for some time, but that getting information on how long they could expect to wait would have helped allay their mounting anxieties.
“I would like a centralized contact point, maybe regional, where I, as a selectman, would not have to hunt and peck to get information, somebody that I could call who was keeping tabs on our area,” Sear said.
On the Monday after the storm struck, Sear said, a single out-of-state work crew arrived in his town to the cheers of local residents. That crew, he said, stayed for one hour without doing anything and then left. It wasn’t until Thursday of that week that more crews returned, but they sat in a local parking lot for several hours before leaving to work on power restoration efforts in Eastford, Sear said
He said he never got an answer from CL&P as to why the crews didn’t stay and work in his town.
April Capone, East Haven’s mayor, said United Illuminating’s response to power outages in her town also appeared uncoordinated and the company did not have enough customer service representatives on hand during the storm to deal with customer calls. Many of those calls, she said, came in to her office at a time when she and her staff were trying to deal with emergencies around town.
“If a resident could call in to UI it would have greatly reduced the amount of calls that came in to my office,” Capone said. She added that UI also needs to develop better manage its work crews in such emergencies.
“We could have used a dedicated foreman to work with the UI crews.”
Joseph Mazza, the first selectman of Guilford, testified that he was frustrated with the lack of communication from CL&P throughout the storm and during the restoration efforts.
At one point during the height of the storm, he said, it took more than 45 minutes to get hold of someone at CL&P to get the company to shut off power to downed power lines that had fallen near a fire truck en route to an emergency, keeping firefighters trapped in the truck.
“We couldn’t get CL&P to realize the severity of the situation,” Mazza said.
Anthony DaRos, the first selectman of Branford, said CL&P’s response to Irene in his town in the first hours after the storm was “totally inadequate by any standards. CL&P seemed more interested in its shareholders than in its customers. ”
Mary Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury and chairwoman of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said many town leaders across the state were frustrated by the lack of a coordinated information system by the utility companies.
“If such a blueprint were in place our local recovery efforts would be more efficient, information to our residents would be more timely.”
CL&P’s restoration efforts in her town, she added, also appeared unorganized.
“Often we’d have utility crews show up in places where they needed a tree crew,” she said. “This caused many delays.”
The start of the hearing
CL&P’s response to Tropical Storm Irene was “appropriate and strong” and the utility company was able to restore power to all its customers ahead of schedule after the storm, Jeff Butler, CL&P’s president told state lawmakers today.
“In nine days we safely restored as many outages as we normally do in 11 months,” Butler testified during the morning session of a daylong hearing before a legislative panel on the state’s response to Irene.
Butler’s testimony lead off the hearing. As it progresses throughout the day the forum will feature testimony from other electrical suppliers, including municipal utility companies, town leaders and cable and telephone providers on the overall response to Irene.
As he said in the days during and directly after the storm, which struck the state on Aug. 28, Butler reiterated that the storm was the most damaging CL&P has experienced in its 100 year history and the outages from it were the most widespread that the company has ever had to address.
CL&P spent six days before the storm getting ready for Irene and spent nine days after cleaning up from it.
Most of the nearly 800,000 customer outages from the storm were the result of line damage from trees and Butler said that going forward CL&P needs to work with local and state officials on an advanced tree clearing initiative. He said the damage to poles and wires mostly came from trees that were well outside of CL&P’s normal “trim zone,” trees that lie on private property and his company can’t cut or trim without permission. The state, along with the utility, needs to figure out how to deal with that issue for future storms, he added.
“The majority of trees were not trees from along power lines,” said Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury. “I think it’s something we really have to deal with. We are the most treed state in this country.”
Hartley and other lawmakers also questioned how long it took CL&P to get out-of-state crews dispatched to work areas. They said many constituents complained about delays of up to 24 hours in getting some crews assigned to work sites.
“I was hearing from people who said to me things like ‘How long does it take these replacement workers to get dispatched?’ ” Hartley said.
Butler said a 24-hour delay was “highly unlikely” and that crews from other states generally were on the job by 5 a.m. the day after arriving in the state and went through at least a 1.5-hour safety briefing and then breakfast before being sent out to a work.
“Every employee who worked for CL&P did an outstanding job,” he said.
Despite the company’s response to the storm, Butler said he realizes that many people, including town leaders, were upset about the amount and detail of information from CL&P on when power would be restored to their areas. Part of the problem, Butler said, was translating his company’s circuitry data into street-by-street updates on restoration.
The company, he said, will develop a system to make those translations easier so the company can provide information faster and with greater detail during and after future storms.
James Torgerson, chairman and CEO of United Illuminating, said his company intends to spend upward of $15 million to improve its communication systems to provide more concise and timely data to customers during outages. UI, which provides electricity in the southwestern part of the state, had 158,000 customers without power during the height of Irene, nearly half of its customer base, Torgerson said.
The hearing before the legislature’s Energy & Technology, Public Safety, Labor and Public Employees, and Planning & Development committees is one of two hearings scheduled for this week. The committees will host a second hearing on Monday, Sept. 26, where the public will be invited to speak.
Sen. Majority Leader John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the hearings would help the legislature develop policy for the state to better deal with future storms.
“This isn’t just for show. We need to develop better policy because there will be another storm,” Fonfara said.
The hearings represent the first time the General Assembly has utilized social media in its proceedings. The committees are inviting the public to send comments and questions via Facebookand Twitter throughout the hearings.
Those sites were already garnering comments before the hearing started Monday morning, including this one on Facebook from user Allison Scotti Waddington:
“We lost power on Sun. Aug. 28 11AM & it wasn't restored until Tue Sept 6 11AM. Ten days. I live in the middle of the state where there wasn't much more than a windstorm. A loss of power for me also means no running water. We had no telephone either. My complaint is with CL&P. I was patient for 7 days. I called them daily and sent requests in through my iPhone. All they told us is that our info had been passed onto the crews. After a week we stopped to talk to crews on the road and questioned them. They told us they did not have instructions OR our specific address & to call CL&P again.”