As residents across the county waited with bated breath for their lights to come back on in the week after Hurricane Irene, state and federal lawmakers promised an investigation into the handling of the outages by United Illuminating (UI) and Connecticut Light & Power. (CL&P)
“Once the aftermath is cleaned up, there must be a time for us to ask critical questions, to clarify what breaks in communications occurred and why,” said State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, in a statement released Friday. Fawcett, of Fairfield, serves on the state’s Energy and Technology Committee and plans to seek an inquiry into the utility firms’ response to the outages.
Hurricane Irene, later downgraded to tropical storm status, struck Connecticut early Sunday morning, knocking out power to 158,130 UI customers and 672,000 CL&P customers. Thousands of customers remained without power throughout the following week.
“It’s like being on Walton’s Mountain,” said Kevin Dillon, of Southport on Wednesday. Dillon and his wife were without electricity or hot water, a problem for Dillon, who needs hot baths to combat his arthritis.
Dillon is not satisfied with UI’s response to the outages. He and his wife drove around Fairfield Monday surveying the damage.
“We couldn’t find one single crew of UI (or out-of-state crews) that seemed to be working on anything,” he said.
Legislators and union officials have expressed concern in the past week that both CL&P and UI may be understaffed, and that cost-cutting measures may have lengthened the utilities’ response time for this storm.
On a visit to survey storm damage in Bridgeport, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he would support an investigation into CL&P and UI’s response to the post-Irene outages.
“Electrical power is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” said Blumenthal. “I am suggesting there should be an investigation by a federal agency.”
Local officials complained about a lack of communication between UI and municipalities.
Fairfield First Selectman Mike Tetreau said he was not satisfied with UI’s response to the storm.
“The problem has been communication,” he said.
Although UI had a liaison in Fairfield’s Emergency Operations Center last week, Tetreau was frustrated to learn that the town would be unable to find out where the 18 crews in Fairfield were working. On Tuesday, he said, Black Rock Turnpike was taken offline without any warning to town officials.
“You can’t create a situation like that,” said Tetreau, who says he would have had police officers posted to direct traffic had he known. “All you gotta do is tell us. Without communication, that’s putting lives in danger.”
A UI spokesman said he was unfamiliar with that situation.
Fairfield was particularly hard hit by the storm; Irene pounded the coastline, washing away at least one home and taking down more than 100 trees. At the height of the outages,16,606 customers in Fairfield were without electricity. As late as Saturday evening, 1,194 households remained without power.
“We have been without power since Saturday evening,” said Fairfield resident Nick Pollitz on Wednesday. “What’s painful is that I look next door to my left and they have power.”
Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst says that once power has been restored, the towns should have a plenary session with the utility companies to discuss staffing and communication. On Saturday, 927 UI customers were still without electricity in Trumbull.
“We should have had the manpower in place before the storm,” said Herbst.
He also experienced communication problems with UI, despite having a liaison stationed at Trumbull’s emergency operations center.
“We had our priority list ready,” said Herbst. “We gave that list to the UI liaison, who was in our EOC.”
The problem, said Herbst, was that although the liaison sent the list to UI dispatch on Sunday, the information was not correctly dispersed to the line crews in the field.
Michael West, spokesman for UI says that the company is not holding back on information. He said that it takes time for UI to obtain information.
“We honestly, as soon as we have the information, we provide it,” he said.
Mayor Bill Finch said that he was satisfied with UI’s response in Bridgeport, but feels that the smaller towns need to work regionally with the utility firms.
“They definitely need a system that helps them triage better,” he said.
State Sen. Robert Duff, D-Norwalk, vice chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, defended the utility firms on Wednesday.
“I think CL&P has done a much better job over the March Nor’easter,” he said. “Their response time has been better and their communication has been better. I’ve been on two conference calls with them today,” said Duff.
He said, however, that there is always room for improvement.
“Our job is to continue to push very hard on CL&P and UI to do everything they can to get power restored,” he said.
Frank Cirillo, business manager for the AFL-CIO’s IBEW Local 420, which represents linemen in western Connecticut, Greenwich, Norwalk and Stamford, says that while the company’s customer base has increased over the years, the number of linemen on duty as decreased.
“From the ‘70s until today, our workforce has almost been cut in half,” said Cirillo. When he was an apprentice lineman in Danbury in the 1980s, Cirillo said there were 40 linemen in that region. Now, he said, there are 24 serving the same area.
Cirillo blames deregulation of the wholesale electric market and company cost-cutting for the slow recovery from Irene. He cites a company policy which requires linemen to work 16 hours and take eight hours off.
“We used to work until the power went on,” said Cirillo, who said that although the 16 and 8 rule has been on the books for some time, CL&P only started enforcing the rule in 2010.
He believes that the utility companies are trying to avoid paying the linemen double time for more than 16 hours of work in a day.
“If they added two hours to the workday, you’d get a lot more work done,” said Cirillo.
Mitch Gross, spokesman for CL&P, says this is not a concern.
“That’s an old, tired message that seems to be delivered every time there is a storm event,” said Gross.
He added that the 16 hours of work and 8 hours of rest policy has been enforced for years.
“It’s an issue of safety,” he said. “Fatigue causes mistakes.”
Clean-up and restoration of power, he said, are taking a long time because Irene was a large, destructive storm.
“This affected every town that CL&P services,” Gross said, and added that before the storm, CL&P had predicted that it could take up to a week for power to be restored.
In the past week, said Gross, 1,400 crews from across the United States and from British Columbia labored alongside crews from CL&P to help restore power.
UI has also brought in additional crews from other states, said Michael West, of UI There are currently 325 crews on hand. Normally the company has about 100 crews.
“We have the appropriate staffing,” said West. “It would not make economic sense to have 325 crews on hand year round.”
Asked if CL&P is concerned about a possible investigation, Gross said no.
“We can’t even think of that right now,” he said. “Priority number one is to get the power back on.”
According to a Friday statement, UI plans to have all customers back up and running this weekend. Some CL&P customers may have to wait until Tuesday.