(Updated 3:12 p.m.)At a legislative hearing on the state’s preparation and recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, trees were identified as the primary culprit as to why some Connecticut residents remained without power for more than a week. Meanwhile, the two major power utility companies gave themselves high marks for their restoration efforts. Municipal officials weren’t as kind, but utility executives left the hearing before local elected officials testified.
Jeff Butler, president of Connecticut Light & Power, told state lawmakers Monday that Irene was the “worst storm in Connecticut history,” creating more outages than Hurricanes Gloria and Bob. It ended up restoring power to more than one million customers as trees continued to fall on utility lines, sometimes causing customers to lose power more than once.
“Overall I believe if you look at the magnitude of the damage over our entire service territory the restoration went very well,” he told lawmakers at a legislative hearing examining Connecticut’s preparation and response to the storm.
Butler gave a 20-minute talk outlining how the utility company prepared for the storm and how it acted to restore power to its customers. Lessons learned from previous storms helped position the company to respond well to Irene, he said.
By reaching out to other utility companies through mutual aid and enlisting the help of other contractors, CL&P had a restoration workforce that was at one point six times its normal workforce, he said. Senior officers were deployed to the regions of the state hit hardest by the storm to help manage workers and communicate with local municipal leaders, he said.
In the end the restoration effort was completed safely and ahead of schedule, Butler said.
“We believe that CL&P’s response was appropriate and strong. We literally rebuilt our entire distribution system. In nine days we restored as many outages as we typically would do in 11 months,” he said.
Following Butler’s remarks lawmakers were given the opportunity to ask questions of the utility’s top officials. For the most part they spared CL&P tough questions and thanked the company’s representatives for their efforts in the aftermath of the storm.
Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said she heard from some of her constituents that following the storm, utility crews arrived in town but waited for up to 24 hours before beginning repairs.
“Could that possibly have been true,” she asked.
Bob Hybsch, vice president of customer operations, said that though it’s possible that was the case, it is highly unlikely. The Waterbury area operation was well run and efficient, he said.
“When I was there there were no crews standing around looking for work,” he said.
United Illumination officials were also questioned at the hearing and were asked by House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey whether they thought there were enough crews in the field before the storm.
The utility companies had assured Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that they were confident they had assembled enough crews to deal with the expected outages, Sharkey said.
“What I realized was that there really weren’t all the crews at there that we thought there were, at least I thought there would be day one after the storm,” he said.
Sharkey said he got the impression that utility companies under estimated the severity of the storm.
The conversation frequently returned to the risk trees present to the state’s power distribution lines. Currently the power companies maintain a five-year tree trimming schedule. Rep. Vickie Nardello, chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, asked whether it was a good idea to change shorten the cycle to every four years.
Hybsch said that a four year cycle is preferable but noted it’s already an expensive process, about $5,800 per mile. CL&P maintains about 17,000 miles of distribution lines and currently its tree trimming budget is about $21.5 million a year, he said.
David Radanovich, communications manager for CL&P, said that it’s difficult to say whether switching to a four-year trim cycle would equate to an increase in electricity rates. Damage avoided by the preventative maintenance may offset some of the costs associated with the ramped up trimming cycle, he said.
Butler said many of the downed wires weren’t even the result of foliage grown directly around the lines, rather large “hazard trees.” Trees around 70 feet tall located 50 feet away from the lines fall can fall and take down the lines, he said.
“These are trees that are well outside of our trim zone, we would never trim them but actually pose the greatest hazard to our lines,” he said.
Anthony J. Vallillo, United Illumination president, agreed.
“The stark reality is that 90 percent of the damage in this storm was caused by huge trees coming down. Tree trimming changes are not going to have any material effect on that at all,” he said.
When dealing with these hazard trees utilities have their hands tied to a certain extent. Because many of the trees are located on private property, utilities must get permission from property owners before removing problem trees.
Vallillo said to avoid major outages in the future someone should proactively evaluate trees large enough to take down power lines and determine whether they are in distress.
“I believe a number of trees that came down also had some disease, I saw some of that. You have trees that are growing in a direction that their subject to being the first to come down,” he said. “So maybe we start with sort of small steps, removing trees that we just know are going to be a problem.”
Later in the hearing, after the utility company officials had left, the conversation took on a more critical tone. Local leaders bemoaned a lack of communication from the companies to municipal governments and the public.
Canterbury First Selectman Brian Sear said he was essentially operating his town in a vacuum for days after the storm. He said it wasn’t always clear who at the company he was supposed to be talking to.
“Canterbury took care of itself but it was a very frustrating situation and you would not believe the rumors that happened when those CL&P trucks came in and then they left. Everything was swirling and I had no information to counter that. I had no accurate information at all,” he said.
Sear said he took part in two conference calls set up by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney’s office. He described those calls as frustrating because there was “20 minutes at the beginning of the call of information, PR, what have you, from CL&P before there was ever a discussion of what was going done on the local level.”
He recommended some sort of regional command center be set up so local officials have one point of contact for information relevant to their towns.
Both CL&P and UI acknowledged there was room for improvement in the communication area. UI CEO James P. Torgerson said the company has developed a plan for accelerating the time it takes to provide specific information to customers.
“I don’t think we did it as effectively as we would have liked to be able to communicate to customers when power would be restored,” he said.
The company will be investing money over the next two to three years to improve their capability to do that, he said. One strategy will be equipping each truck with a mobile device which will allow crews to constantly update the outage management system, he said. The improved ability to track that information will allow the utility to better plan where it wants to deploy resources, he said.
This story will be updated throughout the day.