What if Tropical Storm Irene had been a category III hurricane? How does the state harden its infrastructure against storms bigger than Irene? Those are just a few of the questions Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s S.T.O.R.M task force will be answering before the end of year.
Joe McGee, co-chair of the task force and vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to studying the storm. He said the governor’s task force will receive all the reports compiled by the utilities, state agencies, the legislature, as well as seek information from other states such as Florida, to see how they can be better prepared for future storms.
“I lived this storm,” Malloy told the task force Wednesday.
One of the things Malloy took away from the storm was the need to secure back up generation for cellphone towers.
“At one point we were looking at 300 towers that had not been damaged, but had no power,” Malloy said. The lack of cellphone service in some areas limited the state’s ability to communicate with residents. At the height of the storm more than 800,000 residents were without power, so cellphones, which can be charged in a vehicle, became a lifeline.
Malloy suggested the task force look at generation capacity for cell towers and make some recommendations as to how much back up generation there needs to be in the future.
The other issue that surprised Malloy was how many people rely on their cable providers for telephones. There were lots of complaints about the inability to communicate, “but we couldn’t reach anyone,” Malloy said.
He said while at the Emergency Operations Center they also learned quickly they needed to put sewage pumping stations on the priority restoration list.
“This is not so much about pointing fingers,” Malloy said. “I think we need to trim more trees,” but having said that he wants the task force to tell him how the state can improve its performance for the future.
Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, who is a member of the task force, said her town has been budgeting $12,000 a year, out of a small $8 million budget for the town and the schools, to do additional tree trimming. She said they found there were problem areas they needed to trim because they were causing outages in regular weather events.
A draft report from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection found the maximum wind gust from Irene was 66 mph. The average maximum wind gust for the entire state was 52.3 mph and approximately 2 to 3 percent of trees within 50 feet of the center line of state roads were felled by the storm.
Things could have been much worse.
The draft report found that if it was a Category I hurricane an estimated 180,000 trees would fall resulting in approximately 150,000 trouble spots and nearly a complete outage of the state requiring 67 days for full restoration. The estimate assumes the same number of available line crews as Irene. If it were a Category III hurricane 420,000 trees would fall resulting in approximately 350,000 trouble spots and a 100 percent outage of the state requiring 157 days for full restoration.
According to an Office of Legislative Research report on tree trimming Connecticut Light & Power received 397 tree trimming refusals in 2009 and 344 through October 2010.
The report says that the law generally requires the electric companies to get the consent of the adjoining property owner before trimming any tree that is on or hangs over a highway or public property, but provides mechanisms for trimming if the owner does not consent.
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson said the state also needs to look at developing clear lines of authority for emergency situations. He said there was a North Haven tree on a state road that took out power to a major medical facility in Hamden.
“A jurisdictional nightmare,” Jackson said. “I instructed United Illuminating that my crews would be available and I gave them their cellphone number.”
He said the next call he made was to North Haven’s First Selectman Michael Freda to tell him not to be alarmed if he sees Hamden crews in his town. He said he was told by Freda that North Haven also identified the facility to United Illuminating as one of its priorities because it services people in his town too.
So “where a line did not exist we made one,” Jackson said.
In a press conference following the meeting Malloy said he wasn’t going to pre-judge the outcome of the task force and the various studies being undertaken by the various committees.
However, he did say it’s clear that one of the utilities did ask for more money for the tree trimming process and the money was denied by the Department of Public Utility Control.
“Hopefully we would have learned from this event that a four year [tree trimming] cycle, is better than a five year cycle,” Malloy said. “Perhaps $5 million in tree trimming a year, is a better amount than $3.5 million, so I think there are lessens like that that should be learned.”
“We are a very, very wooded state,” Malloy added.