Two Storm Panel makes final report

Hartford - Aggressive tree trimming, bad-performance penalties for utility companies and the selective burying of power lines were among the suggestions issued Monday by a state panel assessing preparedness and response to Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm.

The final report of the Two Storm Panel contained 82 recommendations to gird Connecticut for the next big storm. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised the work and said he asked state commissioners to devise plans for implementing the ideas.

The report said that while there is now considerably more utility and data infrastructure in Connecticut than 25 years ago, the manpower for maintaining those systems has "decreased significantly."

Malloy said he will seek storm-related legislation in the General Assembly session that starts Feb. 8. Details of the package may come as early as this week.

"We have to be prepared for the future, and this report's findings are an important step forward," Malloy said.

According to the report, meteorological information presented to the panel indicates that sea levels could rise about 1.5 feet by mid-century and 3 to 5 feet by 2100. Higher water levels could pose problems for Connecticut's shoreline, the report said, as the Irene storm surge nearly flooded water- and sewage-treatment plants.

The report recommended strengthening the state's building code to better protect against the extreme weather that could result from climate change.

"We had national experts come before us and made it very clear that sea rise is occurring and you need to prepare for it," said Co-Chairman Joseph McGee, a vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. "The impact of that on the shoreline is quite extraordinary."

Malloy incorporated the panel's climate warnings in his remarks to reporters.

"Because of climate change we simply have to expect more hard weather," he said.

That section of the report drew criticism from state Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, who issued a news release blasting the panel for "straying far from its non-political mission and into the political minefield of global warming." He said the group needed to focus on problems relevant to major weather events such as storm surges and downed trees - not "pseudo-science."

In a follow-up interview, Coutu, who is running to unseat U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he believes there is no firm scientific consensus that human activities are causing large-scale climate change.

"I think it's a little bit far-fetched," he said.

Tropical Storm Irene hit the state on Aug. 28, downing 1 percent to 2 percent of the state's trees. Trees were responsible for 90 percent of the fallen wires, the report said, and about 800,000 utility customers throughout the state lost power. It took line crews up to nine days to completely restore service.

Six weeks later, a freak October snowstorm dumped up to 18 inches of snow on trees still heavy with autumn foliage. The snapping of branches resulted in a record 880,000 utility outages. Full restoration took 12 days.

Federal officials estimated the cost of the two storms at $750 million to $1 billion.

Yet if Connecticut gets hit again by a major storm like the Category 3 Hurricane of 1938, it could result in upwards of $50 billion in damage and down 80 percent of the state's trees. Some businesses and households would be without power for months, the report warned.

The panel's other recommendations include:

• Creating a statewide Hazardous Tree Removal Fund to provide matching grants to homeowners for removing trees that endanger power lines.

• Burying some power lines, as the cost of underground cables in cities and towns centers is not significantly different from that of stringing them above ground. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection should do a study about the feasibility and cost of such projects.

• Developing performance standards for power restoration after a storm, along with financial penalties for utility companies that fail to perform.

• Improving staffing levels and worst-case scenario planning at utility companies.

• Improving collaboration among municipalities, the state and utilities and phone companies for tree trimming.

The report also criticized the "toxic relationship" between utility companies' labor and management.

"This issue has the potential to adversely affect public safety and it is the obligation of management to improve this situation," the report reads.

Sprague First Selectman Catherine Osten was a member of the panel.

"I think there is value in every single one of these recommendations and they should all be looked at seriously," she said. "I enjoyed representing my town and other small towns in southeastern Connecticut."

j.reindl@theday.com

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