Town officials and utility executives gave generally favorable reviews of their response to Superstorm Sandy, as they gathered Monday at Town Hall for a sparsely attended public forum to assess their performance during the storm and plan for major weather events in the future.
"This was an event we knew would happen," First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said of Sandy. "Everybody in this room has planned for a big one. I think we all did fairly well. Some of us did better than others. The reason we all did well is because this is at least the fourth time in two years that we've all been through a storm like this."
The "fourth time" was a reference to three major storms that wreaked havoc in town preceding Sandy over the last few years -- a March 2010 wind storm, Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and a major nor'easter in October 2011.
Sandy, however, was perhaps the most destructive storm to strike Westport since the 1938 hurricane known as the "Long Island Express." The Oct. 29-30 storm damaged almost 300 homes in Westport, inflicting major hits on more than 40 residences, according to Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury. About 260 homes were flooded, while more than 40 were struck by trees. At the storm's height, 88 percent of the town's Connecticut Light & Power customers were left without electricity, Kingsbury said.
The storm also stretched Westport's emergency resources. By midnight Tuesday, Oct. 30, the Fire Department had received 250 calls for service related to the storm and almost 600 by the time Sandy had completely passed by. With more than 200 calls "stacked," or queued up, Kingsbury was forced to summon "mutual aid" by first responders from other municipalities to help cope with the onslaught during the Oct. 29-30 overnight period.
In addition, Kingsbury, who also serves as the town's emergency management director, called in two high-water vehicles from the National Guard to help survey the town's shoreline neighborhoods. With those reinforcements, Westport firefighters cleared 256 calls by 6 p.m. Oct. 30, Kingsbury said.
Westport police also faced a surge in calls for help during the storm. During a 24-hour period that included Sandy's trajectory through the town, police responded to 265 logged calls, compared to a daily average range between 40 and 50, according to Police Chief Dale Call.
"We get better each time we do this," Call said of his department's response to major storms. "Frankly, after four of these in the last two-and-a-half years, we're tired of having the opportunity to get better. Hopefully we won't see storm No. 5 anytime soon."
Public works personnel were also pushed by Sandy. In the lead-up to Sandy's landfall, public works officials launched a large-scale sandbag distribution program to help residents and merchants safeguard their homes and businesses. In Sandy's aftermath, the department led one of the most extensive and challenging cleanups of local roads ever conducted after a major storm.
"We were here around the clock," said Public Works Director Steve Edwards. "We reported in on Sunday night [before the storm] and didn't get out until Tuesday. That's a whole lot to ask of people that know they have their families at home. A lot of my people are from Milford and their families were at as much risk, if not more risk, than they were here."
Meanwhile, the town's emergency shelter at Long Lots Elementary School accommodated as many as 90 people, the largest sheltering operation ever undertaken by the town, according to Kingsbury.
But the toll of the storm could have been much worse, he noted. No town residents were killed or suffered serious injuries due to Sandy.
"We were lucky," Kingsbury said of Sandy's arrival in Westport. "If the timing had about been two hours earlier with the high tide, we would have had two or three more feet of flooding, which was predicted."
Both elected officials and town residents have offered a plethora of suggestions for mitigating the impact of the next major storm to strike Westport. In the aftermath of Sandy, placing power lines underground has emerged as an increasingly popular idea.
"I think with the loss for businesses, the negative quality-of-life issues for the general public, the fact that the utilities are bringing in extra crews and spending year-round trimming trees, I'd really like to have someone crunch the numbers and just see what it would cost," said Representative Town Meeting member Allen Bomes, who represents eastern Westport's District 7, one of the areas in town hardest and longest hit by power outages after Sandy hit.
William Quinlan, a CL&P senior vice president who oversees the utility's emergency preparedness, noted that while underground power lines are common in urban areas such as Stamford and Hartford, CL&P is not seriously considering at the moment a large-scale project to install power lines underground in the 149 state municipalities that it serves.
"When you look at the economics of doing that on a systemwide basis for a company like CL&P, it is a very costly operation," Quinlan said Monday. "Before we decide to do that on a widespread basis, it requires a real study and commitment to pay for that."
Installing underground power lines would cost between approximately $1 million and $8 million per mile, according to Quinlan. CL&P manages about 17,000 miles of distribution lines in Connecticut.
Infrastructure improvements constitute a top objective for CL&P, Quinlan added. The utility is investing about $300 million per year in upgrades to its power-distribution infrastructure, as well as another $60 million this year for tree-trimming operations. As it plans new infrastructure projects, CL&P personnel are studying the viability of more underground lines, additional backup-generation sources and miniature distribution systems known as "microgrids," he said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, who represents a western section of Westport, along with parts of Wilton and Norwalk, emphasized the importance of effective communication between CL&P and residents during major storms.
"My experience has been that what residents want to know is not `when's my power coming back,' but `what are you working on, what is your method, what is the rationale that will make me understand why my power isn't coming back in three days?' " Lavielle said. "And there still seems to be that gap between the knowledge in the [CL&P] emergency operations center and what they're able to convey to the towns and what the towns are able to convey to the residents."
Westport's other state representative, Jonathan Steinberg, raised similar concerns.
"What are we doing to manage people's expectations?" he said. "How do we prepare the average citizen for the circumstances in which, sooner or later, we're going to have another storm of this magnitude?"
Quinlan highlighted the growth of CL&P's public liaison program and its focus on developing new technologies to help public officials and CL&P personnel interface during storms as examples of the utility's commitment to fostering effective dialogue with municipal leaders and customers. Joseloff urged CL&P to press ahead with those efforts.
"The technology exists for us to transmit actually a picture of a downed tree or a transformer on the ground to CL&P, for you to know, even before you arrive on the scene, what you're facing," Joseloff said. "CL&P still tells us to fax to an 800 number a list of downed trees and power lines. That's 1970s technology -- it has no place in the 21st century. These are the kinds of things that we need to improve."
Aside from town officials and utility company executives, only a handful of people attended the forum. One of them, Cross Highway resident Richard Leyshon, questioned CL&P's power restoration strategy.
"My concern is that the power restoration priorities -- assuming that you have a limited number of crews that you can use to restore power -- seem to be pretty cryptic," he said. "This has been true for a long time. I often see people 200 hundred yards away who have power for days, before I have power. I don't really understand it."
Responding to Leyshon, Quinlan explained that after major storms CL&P restores power first to substations and high-priority customers, such as police and fire stations, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and emergency shelters. Once a power supply is re-established to substations, utility crews then move on to repairing main feeders, next to primary and secondary wires and then to individual homes and businesses connected to service wires.
Because of Sandy's impact, a new substation on New Creek Road in the Greens Farms section of town, which was set to go into service last month, will now launch in early 2013, Chris Swan, CL&P's director of municipal relations and siting, told the Westport News after the forum.
If the new substation had been operational when Sandy hit, it could have fostered the sequencing of power restoration for some CL&P customers, but it would not have prevented the widespread outages caused by the storm, Swan added.
firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott