Leaders of the state’s two major electric utilities say they have more than quadrupled their work forces to confront Connecticut’s worst power outage, flying in crews from the west coast Tuesday on chartered flights. But full restoration of power is still a week away.
At the insistence of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the top executives of Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating joined him at a late afternoon briefing at the State Armory, delivering on the governor’s promise to improve communication about their power restoration efforts.
“I’m not sure we’ve had the chief executive officers of the two largest utilities at this kind of press conference before, but we did it today, and they all understand that communication is paramount,” Malloy said.
From the Carolinas to Quebec, governors and others are demanding that their utilities compete harder for emergency crews to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which arrived in the state Sunday as a strong tropical storm, leaving more than half the state without electricity.
Richard Serino, the second-in-command of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also joined Malloy, part of an effort by the Obama Administration to raise the visibility of its response to the disaster.
Call it the Katrina effect: a reaction to the widespread perception that local, state and federal officials were slow to respond to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast.
Officials are intent on letting the public know what they are doing. In Connecticut on Tuesday, that meant a detailed update on power restoration and details about emergency deliveries of food and water to three dozen towns.
Serino, a former chief of emergency medical services in Boston, told reporters that supplies pre-positioned at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., were delivered here three hours after the storm ended. He will tell a similar story in New Jersey on Wednesday.
Other top officials of the Obama Administration, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, are making visits to disaster areas up and down the eastern seaboard.
Malloy said 92,160 liter bottles of water and 21,300 meals were delivered to a staging area at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, and the supplies were then transferred to 37 towns. On Wednesday, 12 tractor trailers carrying water and 15 with food will arrive at Rentschler.
The UConn football game Thursday night at Rentschler is expected to be postponed until Saturday.
But the main topic was electricity, and the featured guests at the governor’s briefing were Jeffrey D. Butler, the president and chief operating officer of CL&P, and James P. Torgerson, the president and chief executive officer of United Illuminating.
“Our No. 1 concern and the No. 1 concern of our citizens is electric power,” Malloy said.
In addition to the emergency crews rounded up by the utilities, FEMA is sending 500 tree and line crews to New England.
“We are working to get every asset possible to the state to address the power situation,” Malloy said. “I want you to know that we take this very seriously.”
Butler and Torgerson each spoke carefully, insisting they were making progress, yet conceding that repairs will test the public’s patience.
“I am very happy to talk today about the good progress we are making in terms of restoration, but at the same time, I recognize we have a lot of work yet to be done,” Butler said.
“We all understand how difficult this has been for our customers,” Torgerson said.
As of 4 p.m., service had been restored to 461,000 customers of CL&P. At the peak of the storm, outages affected nearly 700,000 customers. By Wednesday morning, Butler promised, fewer than 300,000 will be without power.
But full restoration along the battered coastline will take until a week from Wednesday.
United Illuminating, whose service area stretches from Greater New Haven to Greater Bridgeport, had 158,000 outages at the peak. Torgerson said by midnight Tuesday 65,000 would still be out.
The executives said their efforts were prioritized, focusing first on hospitals, public-safety and communication facilities, then town centers, so residents in blacked out areas at least could have access to grocery stores, gasoline stations, pharmacies and restaurants.
“Our goal is over the next 48 hours is to get those town centers all reopened,” Butler said.
Dan Esty, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, said the utilities’ storm plans were thrown into disarray by the scope of the storm.
Fifty crews on their way from Quebec returned home when the storm caused outages in Canada.
“They were literally on the road,” he said.
Others from New Hampshire had to delay their expected arrival until later this week.
UI had to recruit crews from Wisconsin and Indiana. CL&P arranged to have workers from Seattle and Vancouver fly in Tuesday aboard charted jets.
CL&P, which normally has 200 two-person line crews available, had about 900 line and tree crews in the field Tuesday, with their ranks to reach 1,200 by the weekend. UI normally has 60 crews, including 45 line crews. On Tuesday, it had 240 in the field.
“It would be fair to say that there has never been this many people working on a power issue in the state of Connecticut’s history,” Malloy said. “We’re working with these folks, as well as federal authorities, to make sure they understand the problems we’re having. And I think we’re having a response.”
Both utilities are promising to try to provide better and more current information about the projected timetables for restoration of services.
In an age of instant information, Butler acknowledged, that customers expect to be able to go online and find information about outages in their neighborhoods. More of that information was to be posted online Tuesday night.
Torgerson said UI is now in a position to keep local officials better apprised of its crews whereabouts.