Region suffers CL&P déjà vu

Despite changes, locals say, utility's performance
has not improved

One year after Connecticut Light & Power Co. earned double-barreled condemnation for its slow response to two large storms, local officials say the region's major electricity provider's Hurricane Sandy performance hasn't silenced critics.

"I don't call it a success story at all," North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane said. "I don't see the response being any better or it taking any less time (to restore electricity) than last time."

Mullane's criticism was echoed by several other officials, who said last week that CL&P initially didn't send enough crews to the region and the workers who did arrive often ignored local priorities or misinformed town leaders about their plans.

Adding to frustrations, work on power restoration seemed to move at glacial speed early on as CL&P adhered to its "safety first" protocol, which meant tree and debris removal had to be completed before electrical lines were given attention.

"Safety first is fine, but when it leads to a complete total lack of action - when you get locked in this plan and you don't move - it's not working," state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said.

Complaints about CL&P's response to Sandy come 10 months after a report by the so-called Two Storm Panel, which rated state utilities as "deficient" in their preparations for last year's major weather events. Earlier this year, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said CL&P would have to pay for its poor response times last year by facing possible financial penalties when it next tries to raise its rates.

But CL&P spokesman Frank Poirot said last week that any comparisons between Hurricane Sandy and last year's two storms - August's Tropical Storm Irene and an October nor'easter - are misplaced. Sandy, he said, did much more damage in southeastern Connecticut than either of last year's storms.

"No two storms are alike," he said.

Poirot said there's always room for improvement when it comes to restoring power after a major outage. He said CL&P will hold a debriefing after finishing its Sandy cleanup to help determine how to improve the restoration process next time around.

One of the major complaints heard around the region involves a protocol that requires line crews to get clearance from supervisors at one cleanup site before moving to the next. This, said critics, led to delays in restoring electricity to hard-hit areas as crews awaited for a go-ahead before energizing a circuit.

CL&P spokesmen acknowledged that this part of the safety-first procedure might be improved during future storms.

"We learn something from every storm," Poirot said.

Urban and state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, suggested that the state consider a program to certify local rescue and public works personnel in debris-removal procedures after power outages so that restoration efforts can be expedited in the future. But Poirot said CL&P would have major liability concerns if it allowed anyone but its own workers to deal with downed electrical lines.

Several local officials, including state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, shared observations that few electrical-repair trucks were seen on local roads immediately after the storm as CL&P took about two days to assess damage. But Poirot pointed out that 338,000 CL&P customers regained power within the first couple of days after the storm, about half of the estimated 650,000 who lost electricity, an indication that a lot of work was being done behind the scenes on major circuits at locations too remote from southeastern Connecticut to be noticeable in the region.

Municipal officials said they appreciate the CL&P liaisons who worked with towns to help prioritize the areas that needed electrical restoration first. But they also said that many of those priorities were later changed by CL&P officials without any explanation, leading to a scattershot and inefficient restoration effort.

"I don't think anybody's happy," said Mullane, the North Stonington first selectman. "This could have been managed better."

Adding to problems, officials said, out-of-state crews sometimes showed up without maps or even global positioning systems to help guide them through the affected neighborhoods.

"Everyone expected a better response," Stillman said. "I know I did."

"There's a lot of frustration here," said Waterford Chief of Police Murray Pendleton, who also heads the town's emergency management efforts. He said the number of line crews sent to Waterford after the storms was inadequate.

Dick Morris, director of emergency services in East Lyme, said what irked him was CL&P's poor communication. Two days in a row, he said, the utility promised night crews that never materialized.

"We were not getting what we were promised we were going to get," he said.

CL&P's safety-first precautions were called into question in East Lyme when utility crews restored power in the Laurel Hill neighborhood before noticing that an electrical line was down, which resulted in a pile of leaves catching on fire.

Morris noted that the region seemed to get few of the 2,000 line crews that CL&P had promised were headed to Connecticut in anticipation of the storm. In fact, by Thursday only about half that number of out-of-state crews were reported to be working in Connecticut, though numbers were expected to swell over the weekend.

At midweek, local officials reported only slightly more than 40 CL&P crews on the road locally.

CL&P spokesman Poirot explained that impact of Hurricane Sandy over such a large area - including Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware - limited the number of crews that could set immediately out for Connecticut. But as storm cleanup was completed in other New England states, he said, more crews became available.

Despite some of the criticisms, several officials said CL&P had a better plan this time around than it did last year to deal with electrical outages. Among those praising CL&P was Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, a Democrat who served on the Two Storm Panel and is running against Republican state Rep. Chris Coutu to replace retiring state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, in the 19th District.

Osten, reached late last week as she was celebrating the restoration of power to the last dark areas of town, said some of the suggestions that came out of the panel helped CL&P improve its response this time around.

"We think there is much better coordination with the state, and they acted in a much more coordinated fashion in each town and regionally," she said.

Others were not so sure. Urban related difficulties in getting CL&P to respond to specific problems, such as dairy farmers not being able to milk their cows and elderly residents in nursing homes without electricity.

Maynard pointed out that, after all recent storms, customers of locally run utilities in Norwich and Groton made out significantly better than CL&P customers in terms of electricity restoration, with nearly all customers in both cities restored to full power within two or three days of the storm.

Maynard added that complaints over CL&P's response to Hurricane Sandy likely will mean reconvening another storm panel to analyze what went wrong this time and what steps need to be taken to get a quicker response restoring power next time a major storm blows through.

"I don't think the effort from last year has significantly improved things," he said. "It's just added another layer of bureaucracy."


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