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Evaluating CL&P's Questionable Response to Irene

Lawmakers, citizens and CL&P reps sound off about days worth of blackouts that plagued Fairfield County.

Call it “CSI: Utilities.”

Lawmakers across the state are of how CL&P handled its communications .

“It’s time to do the autopsy,” said state Rep. John Shaban a Republican representing Easton, Redding and Weston in the 135th House District. “I think there was a lot of miscommunication.”

In the end most state legislators agree that it’s about “expectation management.” And so people can expect public hearings into what happened with CL&P response after Tropical Storm Irene, not just from getting power up but in its communication strategy. Lawmakers won’t get any argument from CL&P. Indeed CL&P President and CEO Jeff Butler has said he welcomes an investigation.

“We understand that, especially in today's world, being without power is frustrating, and our local officials and customers not having timely access to the information increases that frustration,” Butler said in a statement.

Mitch Gross, a spokesman for CL&P, said well before the storm hit customers were told that power could be out for a week or more in some areas. However, he said, “the utility looks forward to actively participating in the upcoming hearing. We will have a constructive discussion with all parties. Everybody wants the same thing.”

, a Republican representing Norwalk and Wilton in the 143rd Senate District, and state Sen. Toni Boucher—a Republican representing Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton in the 26th Senate District, .

Even before power was restored the two co-signed a letter to Butler. Communication was one of many topics addressed.

“Communication with CL&P customers has been irregular, inconsistent, inaccurate, and in many cases nonexistent, making the situation far more distressing for residents than it would otherwise have been,” according to the letter. “The overall lack of information on work plans and status reports has made people feel very anxious and -- in the case of many older, ill, or disabled individuals – desperate. It is unacceptable that people already experiencing physical distress should be left in a communication vacuum.”

If they knew less populated towns were to be last then say so at the forefront. Then people are equipped with knowledge and can plan. It’s the uncertainty that’s difficult.

In Wilton, Tim and Grace Donovan, didn’t get power for at least four days. Their story illustrates the frustration people had with CL&P regarding not so much power restoration as the power to communicate.

In one message to CL&P Tim Donovan explained how his whole street, Signal Hill, had power save for his house.

“They TOOK DOWN the TRANSFORMER about 4 days ago when they fixed the pole wires and HAVE NOT REPLACED IT. Feel like we have been forgotten because the rest of the houses on street have power. Have called and the reps have no information other than what I've been telling them. Please respond!!!,” Donovan posted on Facebook. 

In CL&P’s response they told Donovan he was right to report his situation to customer service and that he should check the connection to his meter.

“If you have already checked this, then be assured we are aware of your situation and will respond as soon as we can,” according to CL&P’s posted response.

The Donovans got power eight days after the storm. And while this is a Wilton story, it will likely resonate with many across the state. And that’s why hearings are needed, said several legislators.

Lavielle said many of her constituents felt like the Donovans: hostage to the situation, in large part because they lacked current and accurate information. 

“People weren’t demanding power, they just wanted to know the procedure, the work plan,” she said.

For example, at one point it was said that up to 100 crews were coming from Canada. But they had to turn back to help Vermont. Most residents were not aware of that situation, she said.

“It’s perception versus reality,” Lavielle said. “It’s a client service organization at the end of the day. Clients, or customers, expect some consideration regarding how they feel. They want some recognition that they can think.”

State Rep. John Frey, a Republican representing Ridgefield in the 111th House District, agreed.

“They set unreasonable expectations going into the storm that they were very well prepared,” Frey said. “When the storm was coming they said they had 900 crews between in-state and those called from other states. So people felt a lot of confidence.”

But then it turned out there were about six crews in Ridgefield, a town of 25,000 people. There was no pharmacy, no gas station and no traffic lights: “It just went on,” Frey said.

Del Dridle September 12, 2011 at 12:20 PM
Let's implement a plan from start to finish. Enumerate the steps storm coming staff (already in place - not five states away!) identify a team leader from CLP to each town. This leader is responsible (along with team members) to work directly with town officials (hopefully -NOT Bill Brennan because he was very busy writing letters telling all Wilton what a great job he and his town employees were doing during the storm!) to map out where crews will be and estimated time the crews can get to locations. Remember the trees must be moved so bring the dozers straight away. If need be get on the phone and call the Governor for National Guard - Redding was the smartest to do this. Keep people informed - send police out with horns letting people know what the situation is. Identify the elderly and be sure that they are taken care of. Dock CLP for every lie they tell us! That's a plan folks - Not some BS from a CLP spokesperson...
hans pohlschroeder September 12, 2011 at 01:59 PM
We need a long-term plan to put all wires in each town underground !! Suggestion : Every time a town road is built, or resurfaced the town installs underground concrete pipes and then rents out the piping to CL&P, Cablevision, ATT, Verizon etc. Over a 20 or 30 year horizon the towns will have enough steady in come from the rental of the "pipes" to pay back the cost of installing the new infrastructure. No more black outs ! Civilization ! No more ugly wires !!!!!!!
Sue Donem September 12, 2011 at 02:31 PM
I think some of this blame is misplaced: 1) CL&P told everyone ahead of time that many people would likely be without power for a week or more. This goes to thie issue of setting expectations. 2) The town has done a terrible job of keeping trees and brush (which are on town property) away from power lines. Even now, as you drive around town, look up. You'll see outages waiting to happen. 3) Everyone has their idea of what a communications plan should look like. In order to implement the most ambitious of these (i.e. assigning a CL&P team leader for each of 169 towns) would require additional staffing, which in turn would would increase electricity rates. This might be warranted in hurricane-centric Florida or North Carolina, but not Connecticut. Everyone wants something for nothing. Putting the wires underground would be fantastic, but who's going to pay for it? CL&P's response was not perfect, but ON BALANCE they seem to have a pretty good job given the breadth of the storm and the corresponding scarcity of resources.
Elyse September 12, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Putting wires underground is exhorbitantly expensive. We're talking millions, and there's NO guarantee they won't break. Burrowing critters like to chew on them (a friend in Wisconsin told me of how groundhogs will bite through them, even the lead ones). As for notification, without power/email, you're sorta out of luck unless you leave your house. But joined http://groups.yahoo.com/group/wiltonct - I can't tell you how many emails I got from that advising of updates on CL&P, water at the tennis courts, showers at the Y, etc. It's a group worth joining, plus it covers every day accidents and road blockages as well. CL&P did give everybody fair warning that power could be out for a week. So everyone had time to prepare - rushing out the day before the storm is predicted to arrive just doesn't work. Basically, a timeline of what happened in WIlton (most of CT, really) should be posted to Wilton's town website, or on news sites. I do know that in the event of an evacuation, the authorities did know to pick up the elderly (they had a list of names).

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