Tuesday, Aug. 4  was a very bad day for our people and our trees in Connecticut. Close to a million customers of United Illuminating and Eversource lost power – rivaling the outages caused by Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy — and thousands of trees came down.

The trees that died in this “natural disaster” were our best natural ally to mitigate the even stronger storms coming, due to climate change. They sequester carbon in their roots, leaves and bark, and release oxygen to help us breathe. This loss is intensified by the tens of thousands of trees the utilities have removed and continue to remove in a futile effort to “harden” the infrastructure sending power to our homes and businesses.

It’s painfully clear that not enough crews were on call to deal with this disaster, and that Eversource, especially, was caught flat-footed. Eight years after the “Two storm panel” recommendations that gave permission to the utilities to take down more trees, we are less resilient than ever! To those who insist that the answer is to remove more trees, we say that is clearly not the answer! Removing our big, healthy trees actually weakens our resiliency, increases the power of the storms and reduces our ability to successfully withstand the negative impacts.

Hamden Alliance for Trees (HAT) agrees with PURA Chairwoman Marissa Gillette’s  third point in her Aug. 6 announcement of an investigation to “determine whether resources that were invested into their outage response system were prudent in light of the recent system failures.”

The overall outage response system, including the basic strategy of removing trees, must be questioned as that strategy has clearly resulted in making Connecticut less resilient and more vulnerable to ever more powerful storms. The failure to have adequate crews in place aside, the reason the massive response was needed was because there was so much more devastation than should have resulted if the basic strategy was working.

The permanent and inevitable solution to the problem of trees vs. wires is putting the wires underground. Then we will have our electric power and our trees. Of course, it will be expensive, but so are these oft-repeated power outages – expensive in clearing trees and downed wires and restoring the grid, not to mention the lost income for businesses without power and the incredible inconvenience and, for some people, life-threatening challenges of living without power for days on end.

Underground installation can be paid for with a long-term financing package as is regularly done with large projects. This has been done throughout Europe for decades and is happening in other places in the United States. For example, San Diego has had an active utility undergrounding program since 1970, enabled by California legislation known as rule 20A, passed in 1967. Their goal is to do 10 to 15 miles of streets per year and expect to have it done in 54 years.   This is a long-term project, but in half a century, they will be finished. It will never happen in Connecticut as long as all we hear is “It can’t be done.”

The utilities and the appropriate local officials can identify key areas that can and should be put underground first. The present, ongoing capital project of upgrading the poles and wiring that the utilities are currently pursuing should be stopped as it will be just as vulnerable to failure as the current distribution system.

The Governor’s Council on Climate Change (GC3 ) working groups should be challenged to bring home this message and PURA should finally force the utilities to really serve the people by establishing policies and following procedures that strengthen our resiliency by following best practices and becoming stewards of our trees and allies in the effort to underground the electric utility infrastructure.

PURA and the CT Siting Council should be required to participate in the GC3 workshops and participate in addressing the climate crisis we are all living in. These two bodies should not be independent from oversight but rather accountable to the people of the state.

Hamden Alliance for Trees urges everyone to speak out in support of moving the electric wires underground and for responsible care for our trees! Trees provide shade, oxygen, and beauty; they fight erosion and provide habitat for the birds we love to see. They are incredibly important to our well-being. When they fall to wind and chainsaw, we mourn their loss and we should find ways to replace every one of them.

Diane Hoffman is a member of the Hamden Alliance for Trees.

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