By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Municipal leaders told Connecticut lawmakers on Monday they were frustrated by the response to last month’s tropical storm by the state’s electric utilities, despite assurances from the two largest companies that they did a good job preparing for and responding to Irene.
Some mayors and first selectmen, especially those from smaller towns, repeatedly complained about a lack of communication, especially from Connecticut Light and Power, and how they had little to no information to give their residents about when the electricity would be restored. In some cases, the leaders said they didn’t see any utility trucks for days and described how their road crews and fire departments could not clear the roads because they were waiting for CL&P to turn off the downed lines.
Lebanon First Selectwoman Joyce Okonuk said she was stunned to hear CL&P President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Butler tell lawmakers during Monday’s daylong public hearing on Connecticut’s readiness and response to Irene that he believed the state’s largest utility had “a strong response” to the Aug. 28 storm.
“Clearly this gentleman has absolutely no idea of the real world,” said Okonuk, who told stories of out-of-state power crews and tree-cutters sitting for hours, waiting for someone from CL&P to tell them what to do and where to go.
“There was no communication,” she said. “It was horrible.”
The utilities, local municipal leaders, public safety officials, and representatives from telephone, cable TV and wireless providers, told state lawmakers about their experiences with the storm on Monday. A second hearing is planned for Sept. 26, when legislators will hear from the public. Legislative leaders said they decided to hold the hearings to determine what went right and what went wrong with Irene, and to come up with ways to improve Connecticut’s response for the next storm.
Lawmakers received numerous complaints about the length of time it took for power to be restored. In some cases, people were without electricity for as long as nine days.
“We as legislators have heard from many of you and many of you have wanted us to not just simply forget Hurricane Irene, and go about our business, but to get information and take away lessons and be better prepared in the future,” said Senate President Donald Williams, D-Thompson, who represents towns in northeastern Connecticut that complained about a slow response from CL&P.
Butler, who opened Monday’s daylong hearing, called Irene the worst storm in Connecticut’s history, creating more outages than Hurricanes Gloria and Bob. There were 671,000 outages at the peak for CL&P. Ultimately the power company, which has 1.2 million customers in 149 of the state’s 169 cities and towns, restored power to more than 1 million customers because trees continued to fall on utility lines, creating additional outages.
“The damage was extensive. No part of our service territory was spared,” he said.
Roughly 2,000 people work for the utility. Crews were also called in from sister companies and from other states. Butler acknowledged that some out-of-state crews could not help CL&P because they were busy with damage in their own states from the storm.
He said CL&P began planning for the storm six days ahead of time and was able to restore power in nine days, which he said was ahead of schedule. Butler said there were 16,000 trouble spots, and much of the planning for power restoration was based on feedback from municipal officials.
Robert Hybsch, CL&P’s vice president for customer operations, stressed that 90 percent of the outages were due to falling trees, especially large ones that are outside areas where crews trim every five years.
Butler acknowledged that some local leaders were frustrated by the company’s response. He said CL&P is now looking at ways to improve communications. United Illuminating Co., the state’s second largest utility, announced Monday that is planning to spend $10 million to $15 million over the next two-to-three years to improve its communications technology and ultimately provide customers with detailed information about when their power will be turned back on following a storm.
James Torgerson, chairman and CEO of UI’s parent company, said he doesn’t believe the utility communicated as well as it could have with its customers following Tropical Storm Irene.
But like CL&P, UI officials said they did a good job “preparing, restoring and assessing the storm.” He said about half of UI’s 320,000 customers lost power and 75 percent were restored within three days. Within seven days, 99 percent had power again.
“I believe we were doing everything we could do,” said Anthony Vallillo, president and chief operating officer of UI.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)