Town leaders rip storm response, while utilities talk options to beef up electric system

While Connecticut’s municipal leaders blasted the state’s largest electric utility Tuesday for responding sluggishly to record-setting power outages after the Oct. 29 nor’easter, Connecticut Light & Power Co. officials outlined several options to a state study panel to better safeguard the electric infrastructure.

“Where were these people?” Roxbury First Selectwoman Barbara Henry told Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel, referring to CL&P crews that consistently seemed to arrive several days after they were announced. “We were promised these people were in the wings, and they were not.”

“I cannot emphasize how frustrating it was for 100 percent of our town to be completely in the dark for four straight days,” said Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman, whose Farmington Valley community has more than 10,100 residential and business customers of CL&P.

Town staff evacuated many residents from isolated areas by walking them past fallen branches and wires, she said, adding that more than 100 closed streets were opened on the fifth day, but only because Connecticut National Guard members were dispatched to her town.

Tolland Town Manager Steve Werbner, whose community was among the hardest hit in a storm that caused more than 880,000 outages statewide, said his was one of nine communities that shared four two-member CL&P line crews in the first two days after the storm. Tolland’s share of that initial response boiled down to three hours of work by each crew in the community, he said.

“This was a state of emergency,” Werbner added. “And that was our response for two days.”

CL&P President and CEO Jeffrey Butler, who did not attend Tuesday’s informational meeting, conceded in the days immediately after the storm that his company had struggled initially to promptly secure the private contractors from out of state who provide the bulk of line repair, tree clearance and other power restoration work after a major storm.

But municipal officials who testified Tuesday said slow response and poor coordination of resources was a consistent theme throughout the 13 days it took CL&P to restore service to all 830,000 of its customers who lost service.

Werbner recalled that his community rented portable lights and kept municipal public works crews on mandatory overtime to assist CL&P crews expected to work overnight in his community — only to learn just before nightfall that the late shift had been canceled.

“For the next eight hours, nothing occurred within our community,” he said.

Tolland kept 15 roads closed for eight days following the storm, he said, adding that after utility crews cleared downed power lines on Day 9, it took local staff just six hours to reopen traffic on all streets.

West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka praised the CL&P liaisons assigned to his community for their willingness to help, but quickly noted their assistance was marginal since they had limited access to damage reports and restoration projections.

“A liaison is only as good as the information he or she is provided with, and that is a constant struggle,” he said.

Executives from both CL&P and the state’s other major electric utility, United Illuminating, both conceded during earlier testimony Tuesday that they still need to improve their communications with cities and towns, and coordination of utility resources with municipal staff.

“We should have updated people quicker,” said James Torgerson, UI’s chief executive officer. “It’s something we need to work on.

But they also insisted that the Oct. 29 storm was unprecedented in recent Connecticut history, and that most of the prolonged outages simply stem from natural forces.

The 880,000 outages caused by that storm outstripped late August’s Tropical Storm Irene by 160,000 outages, Hurricane Gloria in 1985 by 374,000 and Hurricane Bob in 1991 by 556,000, according to CL&P’s vice president for customer solutions.

Torgerson also told the panel that periodic statewide drills involving utility crews and emergency responders from state and local governments could significantly improve communication and coordination between all parties.

UI, which serves about one-fifth of Connecticut’s electric customers, primarily along the southwestern shoreline, corrected 50,000 power outages within five days after the storm.

But while utility officials said state government also needs to begin reviewing “infrastructure hardening techniques” — policies to better safeguard Connecticut’s power transmission and distribution lines, poles and substations — they weren’t prepared to talk about the cost.

Besides expanding tree-trimming efforts and reinforcing poles and cross arms, utilities also could investigate changes in wire size and type, as well as replacing overhead conductors with underground infrastructure, said Dana Louth, vice president of asset strategy for Northeast Utilities, CL&P’s parent company.

Malloy charged his panel with assessing a wide range of factors that contributed to the outages after both the Oct. 29 storm and Irene, and panel Chairman Joseph McGee challenged both municipal and utility leaders’ resolve to tackle sticky fiscal or political questions behind their testimony. McGee is a former state economic development commissioner.

For example, McGee asked Louth why CL&P, if it understands the options to strengthen the infrastructure, didn’t come prepared Tuesday to discuss the costs of those options.

Though burying significant lengths of wires underground generally is considered cost prohibitive, McGee asked, are there options to affordably protect key portions of the system. “I may take that deal, but right now I don’t know what my choice is as a customer” because the cost is unknown, he said.

“These (storms) are once-in-30-years, once-in-40-years events,” Louth said. “We’re usually dealing with more near-term issues when we go (before state regulators) about rates.”

McGee also challenged municipal leaders frustrated over blocked roads, questioning whether their constituents would support more extensive tree trimming and removal.

“If we ask them soon, I expect we’d get unanimous support,” Glassman quipped, then seriously added she thinks towns could win support to remove trees deemed a risk to power lines. “Certainly we would be partners.”

Malloy’s panel is charged with reporting back to the administration in January. Its proposals are expected to be considered in the regular 2012 legislative session, which begins Feb. 8.