Outage outrage: CL&P reps ripped over Irene response
Nearly a half-million customers of CL&P and United Illuminating Co. across the state lost power because of the Aug. 28 storm, and thousands were without service for a week, including many in Westport and Weston. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said 9,700 CL&P customers in Westport lost electric service at the height of the storm.
"I am incensed and furious at CL&P," said Sue Harris of Weston, who also used the words "egregious" and "outlandish," when referring to the extended power outages, the utility company's response time, and what she said was a lack of communication.
"We never saw a CL&P truck. For days and days nothing was happening," Harris said.
Jason Kannon, also of Weston, who was without power for eight days, called the circumstances "really, really pathetic." Kannon said he had to throw out his refrigerated food after the third day and was inconvenienced by the inability to flush a toilet for more than a week. He referred to it as "like a third world country." And yet, he said, "the rates went up. You're paying more for less service."
Rozanne Gates of Westport, who organized the forum, said her power was restored within 24 hours, but many of her friends went without for more than a week. "We're all paying our bills to CL&P," said Gates, wondering what responsibility the utility company has to its customers and what its officials would do to ensure they don't lose power again.
"This is a national security problem. This is greater than any terrorist threat we've had," Gates said.
Suzanne Sheridan of Westport suggested de-centralization of the power grid would be safer because when power goes out again it won't be as geographically widespread. Additionally, Sheridan told the utility representatives that the company needs a better plan to get trucks from unaffected areas to areas in need, Further, she said, there should be better communication with those utility workers. Sheridan said she and neighbors saw too many utility workers sitting idle on local streets waiting for orders.
Some people blamed repeated power outages on CL&P's refusal to consider placing utility lines underground. "Burying lines is sensible. Other countries seem to do it, new developments do it," said Todd Freeman of Westport. "This is shameful that this issue can't be tackled successfully," he said.
"I know it's expensive, but I'm an advocate of burying the power lines," said Allen Bomes of Westport. If the lines were below ground then CL&P could remove the expense of tree trimming from its budget, he said.
The CL&P reps were not without their champions.
Westport Public Works Director Steve Edwards said CL&P did "an admirable job" restoring service in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene compared with the storm of March 2010.
Lou Cirino, a Westport realty agent, defended the utility company and pointed a finger back at residents. "I really love the grid we have and what CL&P is doing for us. I'm speaking technologically," he said. Cirino said stepped up tree maintenance would go a long way to reducing the risk of downed limbs during storms, which would reduce the number of power lines they pull down.
"CL&P doesn't allow the trees to grow. We allow the trees to grow, overgrow ... As we sit here there is tons of wood material growing around us, a jungle," he said. "We want to be suburbanites and see lots of green but we've gone overboard," he said.
Jim Graves of Westport said the tree-trimming would provide preventive maintenance, but he is concerned that "tree-huggers" could thwart efforts. He said state regulations requiring utility companies to get permission from homeowners before trimming trees should be revisited.
"I don't think I have ever seen pruners from a utility company there. I want you on (my) street," said Kitty Graves, who said they were without power for six days.
Initially, the two CL&P representatives declined comment, one saying they were there "to listen and learn."
"It's important we hear what our customers are saying," said Todd M. Blosser, director of division operations in CL&P's southern division. But after all the members of the public had their chance to speak Blosser addressed the audience.
He said many people accused the company of not preparing adequately for the storm. But Blosser said the utility prepared six days out. Originally, they were set with mutual aid crews from out-of-state but then some of those crews were held in their own states.
On the subject of underground power lines, Blosser said the transition would be cost-prohibitive and would not necessarily provide the result many assume. Just because lines are underground does not mean customers would be free from power outages, he said.
The main problem is trees, he said, which can be minimized with tree management.
"Each storm we learn something new and we try to do better. We recognize that you can never over-communicate," Blosser said.
Also attending Thursday's meeting were representatives of Westport's fire and police departments, and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a member of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee.