Town continues storm cleanup, CL&P is criticized

Despite First Selectman Peter Tesei saying that Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P)’s response to the damage of Hurricane Sandy in Greenwich was “a day late and a dollar short,” a senior company official believes the utility has performed quite well.

Some residents were left without power and heat for more than a week due to the storm’s impact, which left downed trees and ruined power wires and transformers all over town, and as of deadline for this week’s edition of the Post, some homes still did not have service. CL&P was able to make its goal of 95% restoration by the end of Tuesday, but being left for power for days left residents upset and the Board of Selectmen demanding answers as to why more resources weren’t ready to deploy earlier.

On Sunday, at the regular briefing offered at the town’s Public Safety Complex during the storm and recovery, CL&P Senior Vice President of Emergency Preparedness Bill Quinlan said that there was enough preparation and that the utility had requested 2,000 line crews in anticipation of the storm and workers were prestaged throughout the state.

CL&P calls planning ‘excellent’

“There has been a huge demand for line workers in this region and it’s taken us a while to get to the level of 2,000 but we exceeded it by a large amount,” Mr. Quinlan said. “It may seem like we should be able to snap our fingers and have 2,000 linemen appear but that’s not how it works. Many of these folks are traveling from the mid-West or the West Coast and it takes a couple of days. I think our ramp-up was quite efficient compared to others. Most New York and New Jersey utilities are still looking for that critical resource.”

When asked that if, with all the advance notice of the storm and its potential damage, CL&P believed that it could have done more to prepare for a quicker response he replied: “We think our decision making was quite prudent and honestly if we had requested 10,000 we wouldn’t have gotten more than we received,” Mr. Quinlan said. “I think our planning around this storm was excellent.”

Mr. Tesei, who earlier in the day had said that the fact that residents were still without power on Monday was “unacceptable” said in an interview with the Post that he was not satisfied with the responses given by CL&P.

“The utility needs to be able to assure people that they have resources in the communities after the event has ceased to begin immediate restorations through rebuild and not let the time lag as they did in this case,” Mr. Tesei said. “I think that’s a legitimate concern. They knew we had more extensive damage and they did not deploy it in the town. They may have had it elsewhere in the state or not dispatched it later than they would have liked. I found [Mr. Quinlan’s] comments to be disappointing considering the impact we felt here in Greenwich.”

Selectmen Drew Marzullo and Dave Theis have also offered strong criticism of CL&P. Mr. Marzullo has been a sharp critic of CL&P in the past and said that CL&P never gave residents the kind of confidence that repairs were being done at an earlier stage, which he said would have eased frustration. Mr. Theis has also said this time that promises about resources were not kept.

CL&P said rebuilds needed

Mr. Quinlan noted that the power outages caused around the country by Hurricane Sandy were the worst in American history and that this portion of the country was hit particularly hard causing a “huge demand for critical resources” with a “substantial number” of that dedicated to Greenwich. He explained that when an event like this takes place, the utility has a very specific approach when it comes to power restoration work. First, life-threatening emergencies involving poles and wires are dealt with, then it was working with municipalities to clear blocked roads, then it was working on town priorities like restoring power to places such as hospitals and police and, due to the election, polling stations, and after that it was “bulk restorations” to pick up the largest number of customers in the quickest time, followed by the more individualized deployments in neighborhoods.

As part of the restoration process, which Mr. Quinlan called “daunting,” he said that there were close to 650 new utility poles placed in town, 90 miles of wire strung in and hundreds of new transformers hung.

“This is essentially a complete rebuild of our electrical system,” Mr. Quinlan said. “This is not a simple restoration.”

Mr. Tesei noted that he had heard personally from many of the residents “deeply impacted” by the outages and many of them were people he had talked to before about long-term outages in other storms.

“There was a lot of ‘Oh I talked to you in 2010, here we are again,’” Mr. Tesei said. “There were points of constructive critique of the power service, thoughts about what possibly could be done to ameliorate the situation, and then there’s the general frustration with the time frame and the prioritization. People who have been without electricity for this long and also experienced prior incidents have a limited amount of patience and understanding to the fact that this is the fourth time this is happened and once again they’re last to be restored. That has been a repetitive theme in many of the emails I’ve received.”

Mr. Quinlan said he understood why people were angry and noted that his own power hadn’t been restored at home until Sunday. With a peak of close to half a million customers without service during the storm and its aftermath, getting that to below 50,000 by Sunday was termed as “very good progress in a relatively short period of time.” He did add that he recognized that was “small solace” to people left without service.

“We know the hardships that are caused to our customers when they are without power,” Mr. Quinlan said. “CL&P and its hardworking employees and all of its external resources we brought into the state to deal with this have been doing everything they can to restore power in Connecticut as quickly as we can.”

In previous storms town officials and residents have criticized CL&P for communication and this time is no different. At Sunday’s briefing, Representative Town Meeting Moderator Pro Tempore Joan Caldwell, whose district had no power still at the time, said there were “major, let me underscore that word, communications problems.”

“You need to address this internally because while your operators are nice they admit they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” Ms. Caldwell said. “They don’t know how recent the information is they’re giving the customer. They have no update times.”

Mr. Quinlan said he was surprised by the criticism since CL&P had made it a priority for improvement.

Mr. Tesei said he had received a lot of calls for power lines being brought underground and greater vegetative management at the state and local level on private property.

“We can have long discussions after this event is over about what should take place through regulatory review and through advocacy at the state level to implement changes,” Mr. Tesei said. “This is not novel. It’s been done before and hopefully now more people will stay engaged. I have found in my tenure that once the storm passes and people’s power is restored the number that will truly join the cause falls off. I think what needs to happen is there be a concerted effort to stay focused on this. There will be other storms.”

Greenwich Point impact

One of the hardest hit areas by the storm was Greenwich Point. Homes there are considered to be completely unsalvageable and the public park remains closed. In a interview with the Post on Monday, town Parks and Recreation Director Joe Siciliano estimated it could be two to three weeks before the area was open to the public again.

“What we’re trying to do is see how we can access sections,” Mr. Siciliano said. “Right now we have a lot of heavy equipment pushing sand out and a lot of tree debris being stacked. We also have the back walkway and we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to get some of the material to recreate the walkway. We’ve made some reasonable progress about getting some of the debris management done and cleaning up the beach and the dune areas. We’re going to take a look at the end of the week and see where we are.”

Mr. Siciliano said he expected more information to be released on Friday. Chris Franco, president of the Greenwich Point Conservancy, said there was “very significant damage” but said the organization was committed to working in partnership with the town to rebuild. He said that the recently restored Innis Arden Cottage “looks a little scary” but it avoided structural and internal damage. The area that got hit significantly was the “old barn” concession stand, but that had been scheduled for demolition anyway was part of the conservancy’s next project.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Mr. Franco said. “When you look at the damage in New Jersey and in the outer boroughs you see catastrophic damage. And there’s nothing like that here. The town is working very well and diligently to put things back together.”

Homes throughout town suffered damage from the storm and Mr. Tesei and Gov. Dannel Malloy have stressed that residents and business owners register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be able to receive assistance. People should call 800-621-3362 or go online to disasterassistance.gov for help. FEMA has also set up an office at the Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center.

According to FEMA Public Information Office Rita Egan as of Monday, there had been 3,088 applications in the state and 1,980 in Fairfield County. She said that $590,000 in aid had been issued so far.

 

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The following photos were taken by Post photographer John Ferris Robben

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