Expert: CL&P’s worst-case plan did not look far beyond 100,000 outages

Connecticut Light & Power Co. was unprepared for the 809,000 outages it faced after an unprecedented Oct. 29 snowstorm, an independent assessment concluded Friday, noting that CL&P’s “worst-case scenario” plan offered little guidance for outages beyond 100,000 customers.

In a report delivered to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and a state study panel, Witt Associates of Washington, D.C., also concluded that CL&P’s insistence that it could resolve 99 percent of outages by Nov. 6 – while the utility’s internal models showed 100 percent of power being restored by Nov. 9 – exacerbated community frustration with Connecticut’s largest electric utility.

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Witt Associates Vice President Charles Fisher with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

CL&P, the state’s largest utility, prepared for disasters with a five-level scale that described a “major” outage as 80,0000 customers losing power for up to 72 hours. The scale did not look beyond an “extreme” event, measured at more than 100,000 outages with an expected duration of more than 72 hours.

An extreme event was expected once every five years, while CL&P had to cope with two in two months: a tropical storm in late August, followed by a record early snow.

Also Friday, Malloy backed slightly off an earlier prediction that the report would uncover  “some level of malfeasance” on CL&P’s part, though the governor said it clearly showed several mistakes and a lack of preparedness on the company’s part.

“CL&P was not prepared for an event of this size,” the report states.

“Preparedness including planning, training and exercise for a widespread power outage and/or infrastructure damage event is inadequate across all sectors,” the report said.

Witt Associates is a public safety and crisis management firm led by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Witt.

CL&P, which serves 1.2 million residences and businesses – about 80 percent of all electric customers in Connecticut – has an emergency response plan that cites a worst case scenario of more than 100,000 outages.

And while the 809,097 outages reported at the peak shortly after the Oct. 29 storm is larger than 100,000, both Charles Fisher, Witt Associates vice president of preparedness operations, and Malloy, said the benchmark number cited was very telling.

“It’s abundantly clear that no one calculated outages in the state of 900,000, but it happened,” Malloy said, referring to peak outages faced in total by CL&P and the state’s other major utility, United Illuminating, after the Oct. 29 storm.

The report said the company “seriously underestimates the potential power outage events that could occur, and for which the company should plan.”

“There are several areas of opportunity identified within the report and we have already started addressing some of them,” Charles W. Shivery, president and CEO of Northeast Utilities, CL&P’s parent company, wrote in a statement released Friday afternoon. “We have named a new senior vice president for emergency preparedness who is meeting with town officials to gather feedback as we focus on the scalability of our resources and communications during restoration. We are quickly working to incorporate this feedback into our emergency response plan.”

The governor had predicted last month, when he introduced Fisher to the Capitol news media, that Witt’s report would find “some level of malfeasance” on CL&P’s part. But he struck a somewhat milder tone Friday.

“It’s also abundantly clear one of the great strains CL&P experienced, at least in the first 48 hours, was how to marshal the resources and then how to control the resources once they were in the field,” Malloy said, adding that the company was guilty of “failing to have appropriately drilled and appropriately planned” for that.

“Maybe I was strong in saying ‘malfeasance,'” he added. “But I think it was a problem at the very least.”

Witt Associates concluded that CL&P’s failure to pre-stage “adequate restoration resources” delayed the recovery effort, but did not estimate by how much.

It also pointed a finger at Northeast Utilities, charging it failed to provide “sufficient executive leadership during this restoration effort,” in part by allowing then-CL&P President Jeffrey Butler to be the sole overseer of restoration efforts as well as primary public spokesperson.

CL&P’s handling of these outages, as well as more than 600,000 caused Aug. 27-28 by Tropical Storm Irene, led to a hail of criticism of the company by Malloy, state legislators, municipal leaders, unions representing power line repair crews and the general public. And Butler had been the face of CL&P in the weeks following both Irene and the Oct. 29 storm, regularly appearing at daily televised press briefings with Malloy at the state armory.

NU announced Butler’s resignation Nov. 17.

Butler’s standing plunged Sunday, Nov. 6, when the company failed to meet its self-imposed deadline for restoring 99 percent of all outages caused by the nor’easter. More than 61,000 residences and businesses, particularly in the Farmington Valley and Tolland County, remained without power early in the morning Monday, Nov. 7, and full power to all wouldn’t be restored until Nov. 9.

“Without vetting internally, the company announced this date  as a public performance commitment,” Witt Associates wrote, noting that an internal company model didn’t have all outages being restored until Nov. 9.

Fisher said it wasn’t a case of deception. “I think that the company thoroughly believed at points that it could achieve that” 99 percent restoration mark by Nov. 6, right up until “close to the very end” when it failed, he said.

The strategy clearly backfired, the report added, when the 99 percent target wasn’t reached in time and “unnecessarily contributed to increased customer frustration and challenges for municipal governments.

“That (finding) does change our perspective” on outage restoration projections, NU spokesman Al Lara said. “It’s one of the many things we are going to be taking a look at.”

This problem was compounded by another weakness in CL&P’s emergency plan: an underdeveloped town liaison program, the report states. Not only was the program not ready to regularly provide accurate information between the company and municipal governments, but CL&P crews and municipal public works staffs use different radio systems for emergency response that are not compatible with each other.

Fisher did note that no lives were lost during the restoration effort on the single-largest power outage in Connecticut history.

Witt Associates also reached some positive conclusions about CL&P’s performance. “That is not as common as you might think,” he said.

Malloy also praised the work of the crews, both CL&P employees and private contractors brought into bolster repair efforts. “They did a great job in bringing out the restoration.”

“We appreciate Witt Associate’s recognition that ‘there were successes’ in this, ‘the largest restoration effort in CL&P’s history’ and that ‘we should not overlook the millions of actions that were performed well,'” Shivery said. “We appreciate their specific recognition of the safety and efficiency of our crews and the timely responses of our customer service representatives. We join Witt in paying tribute to our utility crews and all who contributed to this massive effort.”

Joseph McGee, former state economic development commissioner who is chairman of a study panel Malloy launched to assess public and private sector readiness for major weather events, said, “a lot of what we heard before this panel was re-enforced by this report” from Witt Associates.

McGee’s group, labeled the “Two Storm Panel” because its focus centers on the Oct. 29 snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene, said it also demonstrates the need for all parties — utilities, municipalities, state government, nonprofit social service groups and others — to expand their thinking.

“Part of what we need to change is basic housekeeping: more tree-trimming, better communication, better training,” McGee said. But Connecticut also must prepare for worse weather events than it has anticipated in the past, he added.

Members of the Two Storm Panel have been instructed to determine what Connecticut needs to do to prepare for even more severe storms, such as the Category 3 hurricane that struck Connecticut in 1938.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, which is used by the National Weather Service to classify hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean or northern Pacific Ocean, ranks categories 1 through 5 in terms of increasing severity. A Category 3 hurricane features winds ranging from 111 to 130 mph with “high risk of injury or death” and “devastating damage” to buildings, other structures and trees.

“But it’s becoming very clear that nobody has been preparing for that,” McGee said.

Among the chief recommendations issued by Witt Associates were for CL&P to improve planning, training and pre-staging practices to better respond to major weather events, Fisher said, adding that the company’s worst-case scenario preparations should target outages that affect at least 50 percent of its 1.2 million customers.

Similarly, the company should expand its management devoted to emergency response, the report states. Fisher praised NU for created a new executive position last month specifically to oversee CL&P’s emergency preparedness.

Another key recommendation in the report had been predicted both by the administration and CL&P: a need to improve communications, including carefully researching outage restoration projections before they are made.

“During a large-scale outage, it can be as important to communicate the restoration plan and progress toward implementation of that plan as it is to restore power itself,” the report states.

CL&P announced last month that it also hired a firm, Davies Consulting Inc., to conduct an external assessment of its emergency response capabilities. Lara, the company spokesman, said Friday that he was unsure when that report would be completed, but added that he expects many of Witt Associates’ findings to be examined by Davies.

Witt Associates agreed to perform the study pro bono, and Fisher estimated that 500 staff hours were devoted to the report.