Utilities get good marks for Irene prep, mixed reviews on response

Municipal officials gave Connecticut’s utility companies high marks for their communication efforts leading up to and during Tropical Storm Irene during a state legislative hearing Monday, though post-storm efforts drew mixed reviews.

And while the top executives for Connecticut Light & Power Co. and United Illuminating called for lawmakers to grant them expanded authority to trim and cut down trees outside of existing utility line buffer zones if they pose a threat to the system, they also pointed out that their power restoration record equaled or bettered other states’.

“Overall, true partnerships need to be strengthened now between local officials and their private utility counterparts so together–as a team–we are better prepared to protect the residents of Connecticut,” Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary A. Glassman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, testified before the Energy & Technologies, Public Safety and Planning & Development committees.

“Communities were realistic,” Glassman said. “They knew this was a big storm.”

The Simsbury first selectwoman said the electric utilities’ response benefited greatly from the preparation of municipal public works crews across the state. Though town staffs had to wait for utility crews to deactivate live wires before some road repairs could be completed, in other cases wire-free debris was cleared by municipal workers, making it possible for utility workers to get where they needed to go. “We saw this storm as a statewide disaster and we had public works crews ready to go,” Glassman said.

CCM, the chief lobbying arm for Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, conducted a survey after the Aug. 27-28 storm, which caused more than 1 million outages in the state during its height and in the first week afterward.

According to Glassman, about one-third of municipalities responded to the survey, with a majority describing their communication with utilities ranged from “good” to “very good” before and during the storm.

“Responses evaluating communication after the storm, however, were divided almost evenly between ‘excellent,’ ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ and ‘needs improvement,'” Glassman said. More than 90 percent of survey participants said they were assigned a liaison by their local electric utility and a a majority of those respondents rated that performance as “excellent” to “very good.”

Much of the criticism in the survey, Glassman said, came from the eastern half of the state, which is dominated by rural communities that are large in size, small in population, and filled with trees. That pattern also held true at the hearing.

Though CL&P President and CEO Jeffrey Butler described his company’s response as “appropriate, effective and strong,” Lebanon First Selectwoman Joyce Okonuk told lawmakers that “clearly this gentleman has absolutely no idea of the real world.”

Though it has only about 7,500 residents, Lebanon has over 100 miles of road. And local public works crews waiting for utility wires to be cleared so they could remove trees from roadways watched day after day as utility crews would waste hours at the start of each day. Utility crews would wait at the town emergency center ‘for hours, waiting for someone (from CL&P) to tell them where to go,” she said. “There was no communication. It was horrible.”

Canterbury First Selectman Brian Sear said he still hasn’t been told why CL&P crews arrived in his Windham County community on around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, but didn’t begin work  until 10:45 a.m. the next day.

Killingworth officials reported a leaking transformer to a special skills unit at CL&P and were surprised days later when power restoration crews didn’t make clearing the roads leading to that site a priority, First Selectwoman Catherine Iino charged. “Communication with CL&P was a real problem,” she said.

“For a big company, they really are an embarrassment to themselves,” said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, whose district also includes 10 other communities in New London and Tolland counties, who added she doesn’t believe CL&P could have done a worse job in responding to the Irene.

CCM recommended several steps to improve communication:

  • Strengthening links between utility recovery crews and local public works crews. The latter routinely must wait until dangerous, downed power lines are assessed and deactivated by utility staff before working to restore traffic on local streets.
  • Create a “strike team” model of communication provides town leaders with regular updates on power restoration plans and schedules.
  • Provide utility outage information in relation to local street and road mapping.

William Quinlan, CL&P’s vice president for customer solutions and chief municipal liaison for Tropical Storm Irene, said his company revised its outage tracking reports during the storm recovery to incorporate this last recommendation.

Outage reports typically identify problems in relation to system circuits and substations, not local roads and streets, Quinlan said. “We literally spent hours and hours every day … translating this information into briefing sheets” for municipal use. “We need to automate this information going forward.”

Quinlan also will be surveying all municipalities in CL&P’s service area as part of a more comprehensive post-storm analysis to improve communications and other response issues.

Jim Torgerson, president and chief executive officer for United Illuminating, said his firm plans to spend between $10 million and $15 million over the next three years to revise its call center and outage management system to more promptly provide information regarding specific streets and addresses, both to customers and to municipal leaders.

Though most of the hearing focused on the response of the state’s electric companies, Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, questioned telephone providers about huge gaps in coverage in her district.

Flexer, whose northeastern Connecticut district includes several small communities on the Rhode Island border, said one of those towns — Sterling — was without land line and cell phone service in nearly all sections for two days after the storm. “My concern is that anyone located in that town couldn’t even call 9-1-1,” she said.

John Emra, regional vice president for legislative affairs for AT&T, said the community likely is served by a remote cellular terminal, which routes land line calls over a cellular network. These typically are used in remote locations as a cost-saving measure.

And a growing number of households also receive land line phone service through their cable television line — a service that also requires electricity to function.

But what happens, Flexer asked, if electricity and cellular phone services are interrupted, and a neighborhood also loses the use of land line phones in the process?

“I don’t know necessarily that I have an answer for you,” Emra said, adding that while AT&T systems are built to withstand most inclement weather, “you can’t necessarily build into your system (protections against) a 30-year storm.”

Monday’s hearing, which will continue on Monday, Sept. 26, is expected to produce several legislative proposals regarding storm response in the regular 2012 General Assembly session, which starts in February.

“This (hearing) is not a show piece,” Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the committee, said. “Our job here is to gather information that will result in changes.”

“We can never guard against every aspect of an emergency, but we can certainly learn to be better prepared,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said to open the hearing.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, was a little more critical in his assessment of the problems tied to Irene and the response. “Many people suffered without power for a long time,” he said. “It jeopardized their health, safety and livelihood… We thought we had a good response, but we can do better.”

But utility leaders said one of the best steps legislators can take is to recognize that Connecticut is one of the two most vegetation-dense states in the nation in terms of trees near its power lines.

Utilities currently have the right to trim tree limbs that fall within 15 feet of power lines from above, eight feet from the side, or within 10 feet at a level below the lines.

Butler said the trim zone rules aren’t sufficient, and lawmakers need to develop a policy that allows utilities to target hazardous trees outside of this range, but close enough to cause significant damage if a major limb — or the entire tree — should collapse.

“Trees created the vast majority of all outages in this storm,” Butler said, adding that other states, including Calfornia, have hazardous tree policies. “We literally rebuilt entire sections of our distribution system.”

CL&P has an annual tree-trimming budget of $21 million that allows it to trim most trees in the existing buffer zones once every five years. But it also spends $4 million to $5 million annually to trim trees outside of that zone — provided financial compensation can be negotiated with affected property owners.

Some legislators immediately endorsed the call for a tree-trimming policy review.

“We all need to spend some time on that and do it in a thoughtful manner,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold.

Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury, said she believes extensive damage was caused in her district by trees outside of trim zones. And while a review is a good idea, Hartley also warned public opposition could be strong.

“People are very covetous of their trees,” she said. “I am of mine.”