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Connecticut storm highlights decades of repeat issues

Associated Press

Publication: theday.com

Published November 12. 2011 4:16PM   Updated November 12. 2011 4:19PM

Hartford (AP) — A storm hits Connecticut and causes hundreds of thousands to lose power. Utility companies take a week or longer to restore it. Public outrage leads to state investigations. Officials order service improvements.

It's a cycle that repeats itself in the Land of Steady Habits. The problems that arose after the freak October snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene in August are similar to ones that cropped up after other major storms dating to Hurricane Gloria in 1985, an Associated Press review of state regulatory reports shows.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, legislators and other state officials say it's time to finally fix long-standing problems such as utilities not being quick enough in bringing in out-of-state crews, inadequate tree trimming and poor communication with government officials after storms. They also want to hold utilities more responsible for performance troubles, possibly by issuing fines.

"Our state was hit twice in a short period of time by devastating weather events that created a lot of havoc and revealed vulnerabilities that should have been addressed years, if not decades, ago," Malloy said.

Power outages are expected during any big storm. But electricity company officials say the October storm and Irene were highly unusual, historic events that caused unprecedented damage to trees and wires, making the cleanup and power restoration much more difficult and time-consuming compared with other storms.

The Oct. 29-30 storm downed scores of trees and utility wires, leaving 3 million homes and businesses in the Northeast without power. Hardest hit was Connecticut, where a state record of 850,000 outages was set only two months after Tropical Storm Irene caused a then-record 830,000 power failures.

Many utility customers went more than a week without power after both storms. Government officials and outraged residents called for having more crews in place ready to work before storms hit and better tree trimming. They also wanted the state's largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power Co., to improve how it shares information about restoration work with local officials and to provide better estimates of when the power will be back on.

But it's not the first time Connecticut residents have heard such promises.

Gloria hit New England on Sept. 27, 1985, knocked out power to more than 700,000 Connecticut utility customers at its peak and left many in the dark for a week or longer.

After investigating the response to Gloria, the state Department of Public Utility Control asked both CL&P and The United Illuminating Co., which serves the Bridgeport and New Haven areas, to improve communications. Government officials had complained they were not getting accurate information about power restoration work fast enough. Tree-trimming programs were also questioned.

A year after Gloria, another storm caused nearly 220,000 outages in the state. A DPUC investigation found problems at CL&P including slow dispatching of damage assessment crews, inaccurate damage assessment and inaccurate estimates of when power would be restored.

After those two storms, regulators launched a broader investigation of the adequacy of the utilities' systems. That probe resulted in a landmark report in 1988 that included a host of new reporting requirements for both companies that still stand today.

CL&P was also told that year to improve tree trimming, which keeps branches from getting tangled in power lines, and to report back on how its new four-year trimming cycle worked, while UI was told to fully complete its five-year trimming cycle. CL&P later switched its trimming cycle to five years and is now considering going back to four years.

And in March 2010, a nor'easter cut power to 100,000 Connecticut homes and businesses. Public criticism of CL&P's response to fix the damage led to yet another investigation.

An independent consultant found that CL&P did many things well, but there were a variety of problems including — again — a need to improve communications with cities and towns and inadequate damage assessments by inexperienced crews. The consultant said underestimating damage leads to longer response times and longer outages.

That report also said CL&P did a good job of bringing in crews from out of state to help fix the damage. But the company was criticized after the two recent storms for being too slow to bring in aid crews.

State officials say they're frustrated that the problems keep popping up.

"Oftentimes it's the same concerns that get repeated," said state Rep. Vickie Nardello, co-chairwoman of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee. "Let's look at what's the level of regulation in other states, and is it comparable to Connecticut? If it's not, then that tells us that we have to make a change here."

In response to criticism after recent and previous storms, officials at CL&P's parent company, Northeast Utilities, said new lessons are learned after every major weather event.

The company will review its process for getting help from out-of-state crews and consider other ideas for improving storm response, said Charles Shivery, NU's chairman, president and chief executive officer.

State lawmakers say they want permanent solutions to the long-standing problems and are calling on state regulators to impose performance "benchmarks" — a new concept in Connecticut — on the utilities.

The benchmarks could include minimum staffing levels for power restoration crews and daily conference calls with local leaders about post-storm repairs. Failure to meet the requirements could result in penalties, Nardello said.

CL&P, meanwhile, is now facing at least five investigations into how it responded to the Oct. 29-30 snowstorm.

Janet Conley, a yoga teacher from West Hartford, lost power for several days after the snowstorm and complained last week about how nothing seems to change after major storms and lengthy outages.

"I thought things would be better after Irene, but all they did was have meetings about it, as far as I can tell," Conley said. "It didn't seem to make a bit of difference this time."

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