Power may be out for a week or more

Traffic on Main Street in Niantic was forced to navigate around this fallen tree limb after Irene hit the region Sunday.
Traffic on Main Street in Niantic was forced to navigate around this fallen tree limb after Irene hit the region Sunday. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Editor's Note: The most recent story about power outages has been posted here: http://www.theday.com/article/20110829/NWS01/110829596

A long weekend of Irene's wind and rain could turn into an even longer week of waiting for power to be restored.

The phone and cable services that keep people connected and the electricity that is essential for schools to open were knocked out by the storm for many local residents.

Despite a week of advance notice and preparations, outages from the state's two largest utilities totaled more than 770,000 customers. And that doesn't include power loss to the state's municipal utilities, according to spokesman Scott DeVico of the state Department Emergency Services and Public Protection.

About 624,000 households, more than half of CL&P's 1.2 million customers, lost power, and about a third of United Illuminating's 324,000 customers were left in the dark, a spokesman said.

CL&P spent the weekend dealing with life-threatening emergency repairs, downed live lines that blocked emergency access, and repairs to hospitals and nursing homes, said company spokesman Frank Poirot. The company said it plans to work around the clock to restore power to its customers.

Still, restoration to the harder hit areas, which includes eastern Connecticut, will take a week or more, he said.

"We've mobilized more than 800 CL&P and contractor line and tree crews to restore power to our state as quickly and safely as possible," he said.

Groton Utilities expects all of its 12,100 electric customers to be have electricity back on by midnight tonight.

There were 7,800 customers without power at the height of the storm, said spokesman Frank Winkler. A total of 6,500 of those are back online.

Groton Utilities reminded its customers to be alert to any down wires, because they are potentially dangerous. Never touch or handle downed electric wires and assume they are live and dangerous, Winkler said.

Customers with questions about outages or safety can call the Groton Utilities Customer Care Center at 860-446-4000.

About 75 percent of Waterford-based Metrocast of Connecticut's customers lost service. The company provides digital phone, Internet and cable service to southeastern Connecticut, and it relies on electricity from Connecticut Light & Power to power its infrastructure.

"We were very well prepared," added Edward L. Merrill, Metrocast's regional general manager. "How prepared you can get for a storm like this, I'm not sure. I wouldn't say we're overwhelmed yet because we don't know the overall impact on our system."

As utilities assess the damage and begin restoration efforts, state residents likely will continue to rely on battery-powered radios for news instead of televisions, laptops and computers. Wireless smartphone and cellphone service proved dependable - as long as people had charged their phones ahead of time and had a way to recharge when their home electricity was compromised.

Conditions dangerous

With winds topping 50 mph in southeastern Connecticut, and flooding in low-lying coastal areas and towns in the storm's primary path in Fairfield and Litchfield counties, emergency officials urged people to stay indoors and "shelter in place" in order to remain out of danger and await the restoration of utilities.

But a proliferation of downed trees and power lines, flooded electric substations in Bridgeport and dangerously strong winds after the storm had passed kept emergency officials and power crews from restoring the services that are so key to statewide commerce.

Most CL&P outages are in the eastern part of the state, from the Connecticut River east and from Woodstock on the Massachusetts line down to New London east to the Rhode Island border. Crews and contractors from out of state are helping out.

The company next has to assess and repair trunk lines - the main power line arteries that branch off into neighborhoods. How fast restoration occurs depends on where the customer lives.

"It's going to take us days just to get to the sites that are damaged," Poirot said. "There are roads completely cut off by trees and limbs. That's what adding so much time to the restoration. After that, it's not a repair, it's a complete rebuild. There are streets that have poles down, transformers and wires that have be replaced."

The main trunk lines that serve cities and towns run along major transportation routes like Route 1 and Route 85. They're designed to serve side streets and neighborhoods, Poirot said.

"Our top priority is fixing those trunk lines," he said. "They have to be fixed before we start getting into the local lines and neighborhoods. It could be an easy fix on that cul de sac, but if there's nothing energized at the other end, then it makes no sense to make that simple repair."

CL&P and AT&T also own the telephone and electric poles that carry cable service, so Metrocast's restoration times, for instance, will closely follow CL&P's times, Poirot said.

Norwich

In Norwich, Norwich Public Utilities began restoring power to residents downtown, Taftville and West Main Street areas Sunday. At the peak of the hurricane, 8,600 customers were out of power.

Early Sunday evening, the utility reportedly still had 6,400 customers without power, restoring power to about 800 residents around downtown, 100 customers along West Main St., and 169 customers along Merchants Avenue, in the Taftville section of the city.

Like CL&P, the utility was waiting for nighttime winds to die down before getting out to do more repairs.

At Metrocast, Merrill said the company has managers and technicians in the field, going down roads and visually identifying problems, as well as electronically evaluating losses in service. They are also using generators where possible if there are areas CL&P can't get to, he said.

"If we could have everybody back on tomorrow we would," Merrill said. "My feeling is we're going to have the majority of our customers on before tomorrow night. As commercial power is restored our customer services will be restored."

In southwest and central Connecticut, once the high winds passed, UI and crews from Kansas and Indianapolis were tackling the things they could: assessing what wires and circuits were down, said Michael West, UI's director of corporate communications.

"We're already full bore, but with additional crews we'll be able to make some head way in restoring customers," he said. "We're looking at a number of ways of how to get customers back on line as soon as possible but do it in a safe and effective way."

Millstone at half power

At Millstone Power Station in Waterford, which is owned by Dominion, two nuclear reactors are producing electricity at half power. That energy is delivered to the entire New England electric grid, not directly to Connecticut. Spokesman Ken Holt said the company did not see any challenges that would force the reactors to shut down, including the projected night wind gusts.

Millstone did, however, lose power to several office buildings and the Unit 1 closed reactor's spent fuel pool. The latter is not a danger to the public, Holt said, because the temperatures in the pool are stable and a diesel generator is available to to keep the water cool and prevent temperatures from rising.

"The spent fuel can't actually get hot enough to boil because the fuel is so old. Even if the water were to drain out you wouldn't get a fire," he added. "The fuel is being stored safely and we're monitoring the temperatures to ensure they are in acceptable ranges."

AT&T said in a statement it was assessing the damage.

"As soon as our technicians are safely able to, they will be activating generators to help bring these facilities back up and complete necessary repairs to restore service," the company said.

p.daddona@theday.com

Staff writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

Millstone at half power
People on the jetty at Crescent Beach in Niantic look at a sailboat grounded by Tropical Storm Irene Sunday.
People on the jetty at Crescent Beach in Niantic look at a sailboat grounded by Tropical Storm Irene Sunday. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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