Sounding more like he did in his former position as attorney general, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called Connecticut Light & Power’s response to the October Nor’Easter a “failure” on Friday just six days after the storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of residents.
“There was completely inadequate preparation, in my view, for the necessity of crews being available, being on the scene, and what we have found going around is that many of the town public works crews have been waiting for CL&P to arrive,” Blumenthal said at a press conference in the state Emergency Operations Center. “We saw in Irene a similar phenomenon, many of us complained about it and unfortunately we’ve seen a repetition.”
There are a lot more questions than answers regarding why the utility failed to prepare for the storm despite clear warnings from meteorologists, Blumenthal said. CL&P should have had more crews out working more quickly.
Public works crews across the state have been ready to clean up their roads, but because they need a utility crew onsite to ensure that downed power lines are not energized, they have made slow progress clearing their roads, he said.
“They should have lined up crews, made the preparations, been at the ready as soon as the snow stopped. And the fact that those roads are still impeded and blocked in many instances is powerful testimony to the lack of preparation,” he said.
With only around 204 line crews on its payroll, CL&P has relied heavily on in and out-of-state contractors for the restoration efforts of both last weekend’s snow storm and Tropical Storm Irene. Many have been critical of how long it has taken to get those crews working in the state.
Jeffrey Butler, the utility’s president and chief operating officer, has maintained that the company’s own staffing level is adequate for its day-to-day operations. But Blumenthal said it may need to hire more.
“Staffing is definitely an area that needs to be reviewed and evaluated,” Blumenthal said.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who appeared with Blumenthal at the press conference, said getting more crews on the ground quickly after a major storm might be better accomplished by improving the utility’s mutual aid contracts with other power companies in other states.
“It may be that lock-tight, enforceable mutual aid agreements are the best deal for ratepayers,” he said.
CL&P did not have enforceable agreements after the October storm and some crews that were expected to arrive didn’t come, he said.
“I think there’s going to be a large discussion as to whether CL&P needs to increase its own staff but this is certainly an opportunity for the federal government to look into ways to make sure that mutual aid agreements aren’t just theoretical, that they are practical and enforceable when a disaster hits,” he said.
Murphy and Blumenthal said the Connecticut’s Congressional delegation will try to ensure that the state’s homeowners, businesses and municipalities that suffered damage due to the storm get as much federal aid for the disaster as possible.
“There’s no question that the money should be there, it is there, and we’re going to fight for it,” Blumenthal said.
Connecticut Light & Power said it will be happy to sit down and speak with elected officials about its response after power is restored.
“We understand people have a lot of questions and once everyone has been restored to power, which is our focus right now, we’ll be happy to sit down and participate in any of the discussions with our elected officials,” Katie Blint, a spokeswoman from CL&P, said Friday.
So far the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved two portions of an emergency disaster declaration which will allow cities and towns to receive reimbursement for removing debris from the roadways.
FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino, who was also at the press conference, said it’s too soon to tell whether the agency will extend aid to private home and business owners. He said they are still in the process of doing homeowner damage assessments.
Serino said it has taken FEMA longer to do damage assessments this week than it did after Storm Irene because the agency has been doing joint assessments with the state, which has been focused on power restoration and safety issues.
Murphy said as federal aid begins to arrive there will be “a fuzzy line” between what constitutes public assistance and private assistance.
In Cheshire where Murphy lives there were dozens of trees that fell on the roads and many of those trees were pulled unto private property in order to make room for road crews and emergency vehicles. It’s unclear at the moment whether public aid from FEMA will help those homeowners with debris pickup costs, he said.
“There’s millions of dollars of debris pickups on private homeowner’s yards across this state. We need help from FEMA not just to pick up the trees that remain on public property and public roads but the trees that have been pulled off public roads on to thousands of thousands of yards,” he said.