In what could be viewed as a vote of no confidence in the state’s largest utility, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Friday evening that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under former President Bill Clinton will be coming to assess the response of both Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating to the October Nor’Easter.
James Lee Witt, the CEO of Witt Associates and former FEMA director, reached out to Malloy through Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and agreed to do the assessment of the two utilities free of charge.
More than 52,000 United Illuminating customers in the southern part of the state had their power back by the middle of the week, while hundreds of thousands of CL&P customers were still in the dark Friday. More than 830,000 were out at some point since last weekend and about 282,000 remained out of power Friday evening.
UI services 17 towns in the New Haven area, while CL&P services 149 towns, including many in the northern part of the state which saw upwards of 20 inches of snow last weekend.
“As soon as everyone’s lights are back on, we need to have a very timely thorough review of the power companies performance to evaluate what went wrong, why it went wrong, and most importantly identify solutions for the short term before winter’s first storm impacts,” Malloy said.
The review will be completed by Dec. 1.
One of Malloy’s biggest disappointments at the beginning of the storm recovery efforts was its inability to get out-of-state crews to Connecticut in a timely manner. Malloy had a follow up conversation today with the deputy from the U.S. Department of Energy who was here on Tuesday. Malloy said he was told the mutual aid agreements require out-of-state crews to stop at the first place that needs assistance and with the storm hitting states to the north it hindered Connecticut’s efforts to get crews in a timely manner.
Jeffrey Butler, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, said the company will do its own internal review and welcomes the review from Witt Associates. He said the company is still on track to have power back to 99 percent of its customers by midnight Sunday.
Meanwhile House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. called for a special session to pass legislation requiring additional utility work crews, minimum staffing levels, and other initiatives he says will shorten future outages.
Malloy said he’s not the first person to come up with that idea.
“I think a special session when we have something to do is highly appropriate. I know something about special sessions probably having the most successful special session in the state’s history when it came to job production and job growth,” Malloy said. “When we have a package to put forward I will be highly supportive of a regular or special session addressing it.”
Public Policy and Public Officials
One of the biggest public policy issues the state will face at some point is: How many trees it should have? A majority of the damage to the power lines was done by falling trees and tree limbs, which are still making some roads impassible six days after the storm.
“There has not historically been an agreement about trees in Connecticut,” Malloy said. “I can tell you that first hand from my 14 years as mayor when I was very aggressive in trying to protect the wires and was roundly criticized for pushing that thought process.”
However, there seems to be a growing consensus amongst Connecticut residents that something has to change, he said.
“What we have learned after the last few days of August is that we are a vulnerable state to different types of weather conditions. Wind and snow are clearly two of those,” Malloy said.
“I think we can have just as beautiful a state without wires being wrapped by trees,” he added.
One of the biggest complaints local town officials have at the moment is all the downed wires tangled in tree branches which they can’t touch until a CL&P crew gives them the okay. And it’s difficult to get a a crew to come to town or stick around after restoring portions of the town.
South Windsor Town Manager Matthew Galligan said he thought CL&P could have been more prepared especially after Tropical Storm Irene.
“They should have been prepared. We deployed our crews. They were ready and waiting right away. But I think [CL&P] fell short,” he said.
While the utility’s liaison program has been helpful, Galligan said there have been some issues. His town had seven or eight restoration crews that helped restore power to businesses that supply local hospitals but he said its difficult to know how long a crew will stick around in town.
“One day you have a crew the next day you don’t have a crew,” he said.
While it’s nice to have businesses up and running, Galligan said the utility has neglected some more life-threatening issues. With more than 30 roads still blocked in town, emergency personnel have no way of reaching residents in emergencies, he said. Earlier in the week, a resident needed to be transported by ambulance to a hospital but EMS workers found the roads to the house impassable, he said.
“They couldn’t get by because of live wires and trees lying all over the place. So they walked in and got him,” Galligan said. “…They walked about a quarter mile.”
On Friday morning South Windsor , Fire Chief Philip E. Crómbie, Jr. sent out a press release condemning CL&P for failing to make the town safe.
“Because of CL&P’s lack of action residents of South Windsor could die in fires and homes could burn to the ground,” the statement said.
Galligan said he thought the press release got their attention. He said he was told by a representative of the Connecticut National Guard that 13 CL&P crews would be heading to South Windsor along with National Guard troops to help and direct traffic.
Andy Goodhall, first selectman of Union, the only town to remain above 90 percent out consistently since Saturday, said he has been having trouble getting any help from CL&P. The town hall, Union’s only shelter, has been running on generator power for six days now, he said. So far only 10 homes have been restored, he said.
“We got a tree cutting crew only for the day on Tuesday. That was a big help but they pulled them out the next day,” he said.
Since then, Goodhall was promised 8 crews to help with tree removal and power restoration but said he only received two of them. Those two crews spent most of the day in neighboring Stafford and had barely made it across the Union by Friday evening, he said.
“These guys lied to us basically and we have this one floundering crew coming here at a snail’s pace,” he said.
The town itself has come together well and residents have done a good job of looking out for each other, he said. But Goodhall was upset, not only with CL&P’s response but that of AT&T and Cox Communication, companies he said have also failed to assist the small town.
“I get it. We only have 455 customers, we don’t mean that much. But if you’re not going to do it don’t promise it. That’s why I’m on a war path,” he said.