As power outages persist, Lamont calls up National Guard
With much of the state struggling to cope with a power outage that continued for a third day, Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday activated the Connecticut National Guard, authorizing it to help utility companies restore electricity.
Hundreds of thousands of residents still were without power, and many were likely to remain so for days.
"It hit us really hard," Lamont said of Tropical Storm Isaias, as he addressed the media at the outset of his daily briefing on the coronavirus. "Almost half of all homes lost power. That's one of the worst in the history of the state."
He said Eversource, which provides electricity to most of the state, reported late in the day that 517,420 of its customers — about 40% of those it serves — still had no power. The company said it had restored service to some 330,000 customers. United Illuminating, which has far fewer customers than Eversource, still had 73,231 customers without power, about 22% of the number it serves.
Lamont, who met with utility representatives earlier in the day, said Eversource had to focus on clearing blocked roads before tackling transmission lines. He said the outage has affected critical facilities across the state, including state police barracks; the state Department of Labor, which is relying on a backup generator as it processes 300,000 unemployment claims; water treatment facilities; nursing homes; telecommunications companies; and the Department of Agriculture, which he said needs electricity to feed chickens.
Initially, the National Guard deployment will include four teams dispatched to help state and municipal crews clear large debris from roadways. Each team will consist of three vehicles, including an excavator, and seven personnel. Two teams will support United Illuminating and two teams will support Eversource. Additional teams may be added.
"The Connecticut National Guard has been a major component in our efforts to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in our state, and now we're also calling on their service to help our residents out following another major weather event," Lamont said in a statement. "We continue to work with our municipal counterparts to help ensure they have what they need to restore power and clear our roadways."
On Wednesday, Lamont declared a state of emergency in response to the tropical storm, and also called for state regulators to investigate the utility companies' response to the storm and whether they had adequately prepared for it. State Attorney General William Tong asked Thursday to intervene in the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority's probe, urging PURA to put Eversource and United Illuminating on notice that they could face fines and penalties.
"We pay far too much for our energy in Connecticut to be left in the dark," Tong said in a statement.
Shortly before Thursday's news briefing, Lamont announced the state was committing an additional $160 million for school districts scrambling to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing total support for Connecticut schools to $266 million.
The assistance will help districts in lower-income areas provide devices, platforms and internet connectivity to facilitate distance learning.
Federal coronavirus relief funds received by the state will help districts cover costs related to the disease, including personal protective equipment; bus monitors to ensure social distancing; laptops; additional staff to support new models of remote learning and to serve students with special learning and language needs.
Miguel Cardona, commissioner of the state Department of Education, said most school superintendents continue to favor bringing students back to school, with more than 55% of those who responded to a recent survey indicating a preference for in-person learning. Some 44% favored some form of hybrid approach involving in-person and virtual learning, which Cardona said could include in-person learning for elementary students and some virtual learning for high school students.
Lamont noted that Connecticut's coronavirus metrics continued to support in-person back-to-school plans.
The state reported 20 new COVID-19 cases since the previous day. And, for the third straight day, no new deaths were associated with the disease. Results of nearly 9,000 additional COVID-19 tests were reported, with 20 coming back positive, an exceptionally low positivity rate of 0.2%.
New London County has seen 1,369 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, three more than the number reported Wednesday, and 62 probable cases, which remained the same. Confirmed and probable associated deaths remained the same, at 77 and 26, respectively. The number of patients in the county hospitalized with the disease decreased by one to four on Thursday.
Outages remain widespread
Hundreds of thousands of Connecticut homes and businesses were still without power by Thursday evening.
More than 491,000 Eversource customers were still without electricity as of 7 p.m. — more than 38% of the company’s total customers but down from about 533,000 without power late Thursday morning.
Eversource said that line and tree crews are working around the clock while adhering to strict COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols, and getting assistance from utility crews from Canada, Michigan and Massachusetts. The company said it is focused on clearing downed trees and branches to open up access to blocked roads.
"We understand our customers' frustration and know it is an especially challenging time to be without power given the ongoing pandemic and hot summer weather," Eversource President of Regional Electric Operations Craig Hallstrom said in a news release. "Our entire Eversource team is dedicated to this effort and is working with an extreme sense of urgency to get all of our customers the power they need."
He said Eversource has "made good progress repairing incredible damage" and has hundreds of crews addressing more than 10,000 damage locations across Connecticut.
State Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, ranking member of the Energy & Technology Committee, on Thursday joined those critical of Eversource's performance. In a joint statement, they called the reports from PURA that Eversource was dramatically underprepared for the storm "alarming and infuriating."
"After Irene, the October storm and Sandy, how could Eversource not be prepared for a tropical storm with weeks of notice?" they questioned. "Especially at a time when Eversource executives have slammed Connecticut residents with unaffordable electric bills, at the same time we are all trying to make ends meet and stay safe in the middle of a pandemic, their failures are beyond unacceptable."
They agreed with Lamont that PURA needs to investigate the utilities immediately and said lawmakers need to be part of that process.
Democratic Sen. Norm Needleman, chairman of the state's Energy & Technology Committee and first selectman of Essex, called The Day on Thursday evening after a call with emergency management and other municipal leaders. He exasperatedly said of Eversource's response, "What a failure."
He said some towns haven't seen any Eversource or contractor assets, and dozens of roads in different towns were still blocked after 48 hours.
"They have people in neighborhoods that are stuck and blocked in their houses, blocked in their neighborhoods," Needleman said. "Emergency vehicles can't get to them."
Needleman added that he didn't hear any towns serviced by United Illuminating complaining; it was all Eversource complaints. He said it's unacceptable that the outage reporting line crashed a few times, criticized Eversource for outsourcing so much of its work, and questioned what would've happened if Connecticut saw 100 mph winds.
Eversource said that issues related to its outage reporting system have been resolved and customers can report any outage online at www.eversource.com, or by calling (800) 286-2000. Customers who sign up for the company's two-way texting feature can send a text to report an outage and receive outage updates as they happen.
Of all Eversource customers in the region, the following percentages remained without power as of 6:30 p.m. Thursday:
- 92% in Lyme, down from 98.6% Wednesday
- 69% in Old Lyme, down from 99.3% Wednesday
- 64.7% in Preston, down from 86.6% Wednesday
- 17.9% in Montville, down from 27% Wednesday
- 16.2% in Waterford, down from 25% Wednesday
- 15.4% in Ledyard, down from 29% Wednesday
- 6.8% in East Lyme, down from 34% Wednesday
- 2.8% in New London, the same as on Wednesday
Mitch Gross, spokesman for Eversource, said Wednesday that customers should prepare for multiple days without electricity.
Amid power outages, New London announced it is providing cooling centers and charging stations, while Preston opened the Preston Plains Middle School as a daytime shelter.
The Preston shelter, open 2-5 p.m. Friday and over the weekend if necessary, is offering charging stations, showers and water for residents to fill jugs for home use. Residents must bring their own jugs.
Shower space is limited, with three showers for women and girls, and a small open shower for men and boys. Residents are asked to call ahead to Parks and Recreation Director Amy Brosnan at (860) 215-0444 to check on availability.
Municipal utilities nearly finished with power restorations
Norwich Public Utilities said that as of 8 p.m. Thursday, approximately 200 of its customers remained without power, down from a peak of 6,500 on Tuesday night, 4,000 on Wednesday, and 1,000 earlier Thursday.
NPU said it would continue to focus on areas near Scotland Road, on and near Canterbury Turnpike, on Lee Avenue and in the area of Norwichtown, on Laurel Hill and Starr Street. The utility noted work would continue into Friday morning.
In drilling for the two new utility poles on Starr Street, NPU said earlier Thursday that it had encountered a great deal of ledge, which has made the work more challenging and time-consuming, spokesperson Chris Riley said.
Groton Utilities spokesperson Daniel Bouges said Thursday evening that Groton Utilities — which has about 17,000 customers — was 99% complete with power restoration in Groton and 96% complete in Bozrah.
He said 99 customers remain without power in Bozrah but he hopes that will be wrapped up by Friday afternoon, if all goes well. Bouges said Groton is complete except for a few houses that had electrical work torn off the side, which he said is technically the responsibility of an electrician to come repair.
"We do everything we can up to the point of personal property," he said.
Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.
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