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Left in the dark: Eversource faces investigation after storm

The week before her 16-year-old daughter, Kyla, was scheduled to have surgery, Autumn Craig and her family had to break their two-week precautionary COVID-19 quarantine due to a power outage, driving their SUV through the woods and down a neighbor's driveway to find food and water after being trapped in their home by downed trees and wires for days.

During Isaias, a tree on Craig's property — that she said she brought to Eversource's attention before — came crashing down, falling straight onto power lines that now laid in her driveway.

Craig was one of the last 20 people to have her electricity restored in Colchester, where 99% of Eversource customers lost power when Isaias tore through. For eight days, she tried to keep Kyla, who has a genetic condition, healthy as they lived without power or water. She called Eversource day after day, looking out at the wires blocking her driveway, only to be told that power had been restored to her street and that her driveway wasn't blocked. No matter what she told the company, she said, it wouldn't help.

"We weren't supposed to leave the house but we had no choice,"  she said. "It was a really long eight days."

As Craig fought for help in Colchester, Amy Souza-Gagnon of Gales Ferry stood at the end of her Christy Hill Road driveway last Saturday with a large cardboard sign that read, "Live wire down / 5 days / Where's Eversource?" The next day, she changed the number and returned to her spot, all the while worrying about the live wire on her property and a tree that fell atop it, inches from her house.

Daily attempts to contact Eversource were futile. After six worrisome, powerless days, Groton Utilities came to help. Eversource never did.

Emily Penza, who is 30 weeks pregnant, sweltered in the heat in Colchester for four days with both her and her baby's health at high risk — Penza has been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, requiring her to take insulin and eat a specific diet, mostly of fresh foods that need to be refrigerated. Her insulin supply needs to be kept cool. Without electricity or water, she wasn't able to properly store her insulin, stick to her recommended diet, hydrate or cool herself off without scouring their powerless town for ice, usually without any luck.

During the four days, Penza and her husband only heard that Eversource was "evaluating" the outage.

Eversource says it was as prepared as could be for Tropical Storm Isaias. But more than 700,000 Connecticut customers lost their electricity, according to numbers listed on the utility's website immediately after the storm, though the company said the peak was 632,000 customers without power on Aug 5. The total number of outages still was being recorded as of Thursday.

Some residents gained power back within 24 hours, while others waited more than a week for their lights to be turned back on, leaving them without refrigerators, the ability to charge phones or run medical equipment and, for many on wells, running water.

So, what went wrong? How did a relatively mild tropical storm wreak such havoc on the state's electrical grids? And what will happen if another — bigger — storm strikes this hurricane season?

According to Eversource, the company was thrown slightly off track when the storm itself went off track, heading farther west than meteorologists originally predicted, decimating power lines in areas further from the Connecticut coastline than expected.

Gov. Ned Lamont and local legislators have publicly criticized the company, which provides most of the state's power, saying the response was unacceptable, the number of outages was outrageous and an explanation was necessary.

Regulator to investigate

Lamont has asked the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, or PURA, to conduct a thorough investigation of the state's public utility companies, including Eversource. PURA will consider whether companies were adequately prepared; if their response met regulatory and statutory requirements; whether resources that were invested into their outage response system were prudent in light of recent system failures and whether civilian penalties should be applied.

PURA is aiming to issue a schedule for the investigation by Monday, according to PURA Chairman Marissa Gillett.

The first step in the process, Gillett said, will be public hearings, held mostly virtually using Zoom due to COVID-19. Residents across the state will have an opportunity to share their stories, telling the agency how their lives have been impacted by wide-spread, long-lasting power outages and extremely high electricity rates.

Residents and town and city officials will be able to register for a Zoom hearing or send a written statement to the agency via email. After a couple of days of hearings — and ample time to review all emailed testimonies — PURA will hear from the utility companies in evidentiary hearings.

PURA, which operates like a court, then will draft a decision with its findings, which it hopes to issue within six months.

Though PURA has yet to fully investigate what happened, and what needs to happen, Gillett said, "it would be difficult to say something didn't go wrong here."

"Clearly there was some kind of major breakdown, whether it was with their infrastructure or communications or structure," she said.

Gillett said as Isaias made landfall, it was likely inevitable that there would be power outages, but PURA plans to analyze whether Eversource and other companies "prepared for the storm properly so that the outages were restored on a timeline that was acceptable."

PURA also plans to look into communication failures that left thousands unable to report outages immediately after the storm.

In 2011, then-Gov. Dannell P. Malloy created a panel to review similar issues after Tropical Storm Irene and a nor'easter on Halloween six weeks later each knocked out power for 800,000 customers. A report issued by that panel nine years ago referred to those two storms "as a wake-up call for Connecticut."

Yet this month, residents saw similar failings all over again.

The report contained 82 recommendations for better prevention, planning and mitigation of utility outages during natural disasters — including an increase in workforces during emergencies; better communication systems; plans for companies to operate on a "worst case scenario" basis, effectively planning for a Category 3 hurricane that would be much more destructive than a tropical storm like Irene or Isaias; and a statewide tree risk assessment and plans for potentially hazardous trees.

After Isaias, an Eversource spokesperson said the company has invested significant funding into the removal of hazardous trees, but said felled trees were absolutely the cause of most outages during this storm. Trees and limbs downed power lines, knocking out electricity, and blocked roads, delaying restoration, he said.

Mitch Gross, spokesperson for Eversource, said the company's response to the storm was swift and sweeping.

In the days following the storm, Eversource brought in 2,500 workmen and linemen from across the Eastern U.S. and Canada to help restore power in the state. The company had crews on the ground as soon as the storm passed and worked 16- to 18-hour days in the heat with disgruntled customers, he said.

Gross said they the company was prepared for the storm as it was forecasted. "We were ready with people and equipment based on the best available weather information at that time, the storm was forecasted to go directly over the center of the state and we prepared accordingly," he said. "As everyone knows, it decided to shift to the west so we shifted, as well, which meant redeploying equipment, resources deploying and getting to work."

Gross said "every storm is a learning experience" and said he's sure there will be lessons learned from this one. He said the company will work with PURA to respond to data inquiries, answer questions and attend meetings.

Gillett said PURA plans to look at the "playbook" utility companies follow for major storms and determine if it is wrong or if companies just didn't follow it correctly. The playbook contains specific requirements as to how electric companies are supposed to communicate and work with towns and cities to clear blocked roads and address other safety hazards, she said.

Gross, when asked if the recommendations made after 2011 were followed, said that would be determined in the investigation. "What I can say is we were prepared," he said.

In the days following Isaias' landfall, many residents told their local legislators in southeastern Connecticut that the reporting line for Eversource was down — there was no way for them to report outages.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said in a recent news conference that in order to get some answers from the company, she and other elected officials had to call Eversource executives on their cellphones.

Gross said he didn't know why the reporting line wasn't functioning as it should have been.

Once PURA finishes its investigation, the agency has the authority to order Eversource and other companies to make adjustments moving forward and will assess whether they are responsible for costs associated with recovering from the storm.

The panel investigating the 2011 storms heard testimony from 100 witnesses. PURA already has received "hundreds if not thousands of emails" from concerned residents about Isaias, Gillett said.

When the schedule is released by PURA, customers can follow a Zoom link to preregister to speak live, or can submit their testimony in writing by emailing pura.executivesecretary@ct.gov and referencing docket 20-08-03.

Day Staff Writer Erica Moser contributed to this report.

t.hartz@theday.com

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