Sitting in the dark is fun – for a while. But as thousands of Connecticut families have found this week, it is quickly trumped by the desire for a hot shower, clean clothes, and conversations that aren’t shouted over din of a generator. But Irene left more than a tattered electricity grid and reshaped coastline. She exposed some truths about Connecticut that would not be otherwise apparent.
In the hours after the storm passed through the state, many residents emerged from their homes to find roads closed by downed trees, tangled power lines, and rising water. Some communities waited (and some are still waiting) for local authorities to address the problems caused by Irene. Yet in conversations since the storm, it is striking how many people tell similar stories about the neighborhood armies that spontaneously formed to begin the cleanup process.
Armed with chain saws and wheelbarrows, men and women of all ages assembled to cut away the trees that blocked roadways and rescue people from rushing waters and storm-damaged houses. In the days that followed, this sense of community took on other unusual forms like space in a freezer or pool water repurposed for the toilet.
At a time when a majority of the state’s political figures assert that independent groups of people cannot do big things without centralized planning and a politicized bureaucratic process, many neighborhoods proved they can.
The big corporate and government bureaucracies would do well to take this lesson and build on it. The town of Ledyard’s First Selectman, Fred Allyn, hit on this point when talking to reporters earlier in the week about Connecticut Light & Power, noting that CL&P ought to send a supervisor to trouble spots and advise locals about what is safe to clear so they can move the process forward themselves.
Most homeowners and business owners across Connecticut make out their check each month to one of the state’s two primary utilities –Connecticut Light & Power or United Illuminating. The bills are usually a byzantine mishmash of acronyms, calculations, and legalese assembled to coax more money out of your pocket. But most residents would happily pay their electric bill if it meant no more nights alone in the darkness.
The storm highlighted how CL&P and UI good they are about keeping customers informed as well as how far they have left to go. While CL&P’s interactive map on their website was a key resource for many, getting hard information about when each person’s power would be restored was, well, hard to get.
In the longer run, the power restoration process makes evident the pressing need for alternative electricity solutions. Moving to a distributed generation model in which houses and businesses would generate and use their own electricity via solar panels, windmills, fuel cells, or other means would eliminate dependence on the macrogrid for power. After the week’s long outages, wholesale reliance on CL&P, UI, or anyone else for power seems misguided.
Irene was a reminder that communities can still work together to take on big challenges and the sense of common purpose is alive and well in Connecticut’s neighborhoods. Governments and corporations would be wise to learn that lesson about the society they serve.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com