Malloy orders independent review of utility response to storm

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy toughened his stance Friday on Connecticut Light & Power Co.’s efforts to restore power outages, launching an independent assessment led by a former federal emergency management official and leaving open the door for a special legislative session.

Malloy, who began the week expressing skepticism about CL&P’s ability to complete work by Sunday, didn’t mince words during his Friday evening briefing at the state armory in Hartford, making it clear he believes the process is flawed.

“As soon as everyone’s lights are back on, we need to have a very timely, thorough review of the power companies’ performances, to identify what went wrong, why it went wrong, and most importantly, identify solutions for the short-term before the next winter storm impacts Connecticut,” the governor said.

Witt Associates, a consulting firm led by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt, has agreed to conduct pro bono an analysis of how both of Connecticut’s major electric utilities, CL&P and United Illuminating, handled last weekend’s Nor’easter and the resulting damage, Malloy said.

The Washington, D.C.-based firm has agreed to complete its assessment by Dec. 1, the governor said.

UI, which serves about one-fifth of Connecticut’s residences and businesses, completed restoration work Tuesday on its roughly 52,000 customers who had lost power, and its crews now are assisting CL&P.

Meanwhile, CL&P President Jeffrey Butler announced Friday evening that about 283,000 customers remained without power, primarily in the state’s northern and central regions, which received between one and two feet of snow in the Oct. 29 storm.

Butler, who conceded earlier this week that his company has struggled to attract in a timely fashion the repair crews from other states needed to resolve this crisis, also said that he welcomes an independent review.

“I believe CL&P has done a very good job,” he said, adding that the principal culprit between the restoration effort–which entered its sixth day on Friday–was the extent of damage caused by fallen trees and branches weighed down by an unprecedented October snowfall. “This storm was of historic proportions.”

Butler, who also insisted the company would hit its targets of having fewer than 200,000 outages remaining by Saturday morning, and 99 percent of all customers restored by the end of Sunday, added that his company still could learn from the review. “I think when you step back, there’s always opportunities for improvement,” he said.

Malloy, who created a state task force to assess utility and government response to Tropical Storm Irene–which hit Connecticut Aug. 27-28 and also caused massive outages–said Friday that he still expects that panel also to complete a review of last weekend’s storm, which disrupted power to more than 884,000 customers.

But the governor added that he fears his panel might not conclude its work before Connecticut could get hit with more severe winter weather, and wants to be assured that at least one assessment is available for review in the near future.

“We have winter staring us in the face,” the governor said.

Malloy added that “Witt Associates has a body of experience that is second to none” and that the firm reached out to his administration to offer its services. “James and his colleagues have worked on the state and federal level and they understand how critical it is to conduct this review quickly and thoroughly.”

Witt, who has over 25 years of disaster management experience, first was appointed FEMA director in 1993 by President Clinton, holding that post through 2001. Witt also oversaw the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration.  Prior to his time at FEMA, Witt led the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services for four years.

Witt Associates’ findings could provide fuel for legislative proposals regarding utility regulation, tree-trimming policies near power lines and state and municipal emergency management procedures even before the General Assembly convenes the regular 2012 session in February.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, called Friday for the legislature, to meet in special session later this fall to tackle those issues.

“We should come back in special session by December to pass legislation that will bolster our state’s response to natural disasters and shorten the time anyone is without power,” Cafero said. “We just demonstrated we could do that quickly with the jobs package we passed, and we need to take action now on emergency preparedness initiatives.”

Malloy, a Democrat, said that might be a good idea, provided the legislature has solid information act upon.

“I’m in favor of the legislature dealing with this issue as soon as they have something to deal with,” the governor said.