Eversource Energy’s municipal liaisons routinely were unable to update communities on power restoration and road-clearing efforts following Tropical Storm Isaias — in a major departure from past responses — a handful of first selectmen told state utility regulators Monday morning.
Five leaders from southwestern Connecticut towns, who kicked off a week of performance review hearings tied to the Aug. 4 storm, also accused the utility giant of prioritizing power restoration over clearing downed wires and trees, which put some trapped congregate care centers and other vulnerable communities at particular risk.
“Eversource was nowhere to be seen in the 48 hours after Aug. 4,” said New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan during a teleconference hearing conducted by the Public Utilities Control Authority.
PURA has hearings scheduled for each day this week regarding Eversource and United Illuminating’s responses to Storm Isaias. The hearings coincide with what is shaping up to be the first winter storm of the season, currently forecast to hit Connecticut Wednesday night into Thursday.
Moynihan, who has been first selectman since November 2017, said “I had a lot of respect for Eversource as a company” prior to Aug. 4, and said its people and protocols generally operated with military efficiency prior to the last storm.
But Moynihan said he was “in disbelief” when the utility’s municipal liaison — who was specifically tasked with informing local police, fire and other emergency personnel — on the status of clearing dangerous downed wires and trees, often had no updates to provide.
There also was no explanation for why wires and trees remained down, blocking vital transportation routes, for several days after the storm, said Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
More than 70% of Ridgefield’s roughly 10,400 properties are served by private wells rather than the public water system, meaning most residents lacked access to running water for days.
Marconi also testified that elderly housing complexes and nursing homes in his community were without power or were difficult to reach due to downed trees and wires for too many days, putting lives at risk.
“I don’t think they even considered make-safe protocols,” he said.
Matthew Knickerbocker, first selectman of Bethel, said his liaison offered just one bit of clarity following the storm — that “make-safe crews” wouldn’t even arrive in his town until Aug. 6, two days after the storm.
“If you have wires on the ground and people trapped in their homes” Knickbocker added, “that has to take priority.”
Eversource insists its response was both swift — especially given challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic — and within the parameters of the emergency response plan it filed with PURA.
The Aug. 4 storm affected more than 1.1 million customers — with a peak of more than 632,000 outages at one time. It also inflicted damage at nearly 21,700 locations, including 8,900 fallen trees and 500 miles of downed wires, the report states.
The sheer destruction not only exceeded that of any storm over the past decade with the exception of an October 2011 Nor’easter, but came with less notice than other events.
On Thursday July 30, five days before Isaias struck Connecticut, the storm was still tracking well southeast of New England. And both the path and wind speeds remained unsettled through Sunday, Aug. 1.
“While we cannot prevent storms from occurring, customers depend on us to restore power quickly and safely,” Eversource wrote in a statement Monday. “We take that responsibility seriously and our response in this storm was faster than any other historic storm despite the unique challenges that we encountered.”
The utility added that “every major storm provides an invaluable opportunity to examine the effectiveness of our processes and procedures. We will continue to work with PURA, other state agencies and elected officials to evaluate additional opportunities to develop our storm response capabilities to their highest potential.”
But municipal leaders countered that Eversource took a step backward with its response to Isaias.
New Fairfield First Selectwoman Patricia Del Monaco and other leaders said they were not provided with daily work plans or projections for wire clearance or power restoration — another departure from past storms.
That made it particularly difficult for local police and fire to coordinate with and assist Eversource crews, many of which seemed confused, leaders testified.
Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said some of the out-of-state crews brought in by Eversource didn’t understand the local power grid, adding he had provided grid maps to assist some crews.
“Eversource appeared to be completely overwhelmed and disorganized,” New Canaan’s Moynihan said, adding that some of the out-of-state crews assigned to his community were exhausted not just from work but from travel. Some were being lodged more than 90 minutes away in Springfield, Mass., he said.
“I was basically using their [Eversource’s] website” to get updates on power restorations, said Newtown First Selectman Daniel Rosenthal.
At one point, Rosenthal added, his Eversource liaison provided a list of blocked roads that had been cleared, but it was not accurate.
“It was chaotic at times,” Marconi said. “The fact that none of us had any information to pass onto our residents made it extremely difficult. … We couldn’t give residents any sense of security.”