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Storm of anger over Sandy power outages subsides

Updated 11:33 am, Tuesday, January 8, 2013

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  • Michael A. Caron, left, director of the state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, talks with Frank Cirillo, who represents CL&P's line workers, during a break in Monday night's public hearing in Town Hall.  Westport CT 1/7/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy / Westport News contributed
    Michael A. Caron, left, director of the state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, talks with Frank Cirillo, who represents CL&P's line workers, during a break in Monday night's public hearing in Town Hall. Westport CT 1/7/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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Widespread anger at state power companies doesn't seem to be a long-lasting legacy Superstorm Sandy.

Only two dozen people attended a public hearing in Westport Town Hall on Monday night to comment about how well power and gas companies responded to the late-October storm, and about half of the audience was elected officials and Connecticut Light & Power representatives.

But Michael A. Caron, director of the state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said turnout was higher than at the agency's first hearing in East Haven on Jan. 3. At that hearing, only two people attended -- a resident and a state senator, Caron said.

"I've had at least a dozen letters submitted into the record, so people are aware of it. We're just building a record," Caron said during a 15-minute break midway through Monday's hearing, which was scheduled to last 90 minutes but ended 15 minutes early.

Caron said PURA is holding the hearings because more than 10 percent of power companies' customers were still in the dark 48 hours after the storm ended.

Speakers at Monday's hearing, who included First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, said CL&P could have done a better job "pre-positioning" crews before the storm and that technology employed by CL&P is decades out-of-date.

Frank Cirillo, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, said CL&P needs more line workers and should use its non-line workers to clear tree branches from roads and deliver equipment to power crews.

During Hurricane Gloria in 1985, CL&P had 763 line crews, compared to 205 line crews today, according to Cirillo. "We are in dire need of manpower," he said. "A lot of the concerns out there should start with the first 48 hours. We need more people."

During a break in the hearing, Cirillo said he thought CL&P should have 300 line crews and that their hours should be extended after storms. "They're sending guys home who aren't tired," he said, adding that he believed CL&P didn't want to pay a lot of overtime.

Cirillo also faulted a "toxic relationship" between line workers and the utility's managers. He said managers "haven't come up through the ranks of CL&P" and didn't include experienced line workers in planning responses to storms. "We're a Super Bowl team. We could do the job. We used to have good coaches," he said. He said a "cut and clear" method used by CL&P, in which lines were cut to clear roads, caused people to lose power unnecessarily.

After the hearing, Tricia Taskey Modifica, a media relations manager at CL&P, said the company employed more line crews in 1985 because it was expanding its infrastructure, while the company now just maintains it. "Our day-to-day work doesn't require that level of staffing," she said of Cirillo's suggestion of 300 line crews.

"We need to find the right balance, and we believe we have the right number of line workers to handle our day-to-day work," Modifica said. She said CL&P brought in nearly 3,000 line workers from 25 states and Canada in response to Sandy.

Joseloff, though, said the "mutual aid system" that provides additional crews to CL&P during storms needs to be improved and that William Herdegen, president and COO of CL&P, acknowledged that when he visited Westport's Emergency Operations Center during the storm. "The company was unable to get all additional crews it requested here in a timely manner," Joseloff said. "He told me there needs to be an overhaul of the mutual response system used by the nation's power companies."

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, agreed. "The crews were still not prepared to hit the ground running," he said. "Those first hours, it's the getting people in place and having the plan in place that makes a big difference in ensuring safety and restoring power in a broad fashion."

Modifica said after the hearing that CL&P put out a request for 2,000 line workers five days before Sandy hit and had 1,080 in position before the storm struck. She said the path of Sandy impacted the whole eastern seaboard and that it was "just a devastating storm ... what we call epic devastation."

But Joseloff said some outside crews seemed better prepared than some of CL&P's crews because they were "self contained" -- able to do tree work and line work with the same personnel. "PURA needs to pursue these kinds of operational efficiencies with our power companies," he said.

Kevin Maxwell of Smith Street in Fairfield said it seemed that primary power lines cover too large an area and that power companies should examine how their grids are configured. He said his neighborhood lost power after it initially was restored and believes that happened because power had been mistakenly turned on at Fairfield Beach, where some houses were flooded. "The linemen must have been told they shouldn't have turned power back on because houses at the beach had power that still had water in them. There are no disconnects after Old Field Road," he said.

Joseloff suggested "micro grids" that would "allow essential facilities to have power when there is a widespread blackout."

Diane Lauricella of Norwalk said CL&P in 2011 had given estimates on when power would be restored, but didn't do that after Superstorm Sandy. She believed that was due to customers' outrage in 2011 when power wasn't restored within the estimate given. "I urge CL&P and PURA representatives here to find a middle ground," she said.

Kingsbury said 400 roads in Westport were blocked after Hurricane Sandy and that it took six days for the last one to be reopened. "That's my biggest concern. We can't have roads closed for that long," the fire chief said.

Joseloff said one of the biggest problems facing Westport in every storm was CL&P not having enough people to declare wires safe for removal by the town's Department of Public Works, which he said creates unnecessary delays in clearing roads. "This needs to be a priority. We have had promises of improvement in this area, but, frankly, we see no evidence of such," he said.

Technology used by CL&P was also faulted by Joseloff, Kingsbury and Steinberg.

Joseloff said the town was told to send lists of downed wires and trees to CL&P by fax, a technology that he said is outmoded. He said Westport offered "long ago" to integrate its emergency dispatch systems with CL&P so the town could electronically share information and photos on downed trees and lines and road closures. "We are still waiting," he said.

Modifica said complaints about CL&P's technology is "important feedback for us to hear and look into."

Cirillo said CL&P customers could face their "worst nightmare" this winter if an ice storm knocks out power. "We get an ice storm and daytime highs don't reach 30 [degrees] for three or four days, your pipes are going to freeze," he said. If that happened, some customers wouldn't have heat or hot water even after power is restored and likely would have difficulty finding an available plumber, he said

PURA's third public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15 in Waterford Town Hall, Caron said.