Town’s response to Sandy evaluated

With Superstorm Sandy and her aftermath now in the rearview mirror for Greenwich, both the town and Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) are working to analyze their storm response and pinpoint ways to improve it.

According to CL&P spokesperson Tricia Taskey-Modifica, Sandy caused “epic devastation” because of the long duration of the storm, affecting 8 million East Coast customers from Maryland to Maine, including Greenwich, which the company deemed one of the hardest-hit towns where some residents were left without power for a week.

As a result of the storm’s severity and duration, CL&P “literally had to rebuild parts of [the] system” in order to assist customers, Ms. Taskey-Modifica said.

But with 87% of the town without power at one point after the storm struck, many residents felt the company could have done more to make repairs.

Restoring power is “time-consuming, painstaking work” and it is understandable that customers were frustrated with the amount of time it took, Ms. Taskey-Modifica said. However, she added, “Every storm is a learning experience” and the company consistently works with the town to make improvements to its service.

Furthermore, she said, CL&P was prepared for Sandy before the storm even struck, with 1,000 line workers on the ready all around the state prior to the storm’s landfall. And after the storm hit, she said, at one time the company had 3,000 outside line workers, including some from sister companies, out on the roads making repairs. However, with residents going days without power, the town sent some heavy criticism the utility’s way, saying the response didn’t come fast enough and those additional crews were not deployed in a timely manner.

Despite their efforts, “It’s our never-ending goal to improve our response to Mother Nature’s wrath,” Ms. Taskey-Modifica said. CL&P always evaluates its performance after a storm, noting what was successful and what needs improvement, she said. Furthermore, the company continually looks for feedback from customers and both local and state officials as part of its ongoing commitment to strengthen communication with the communities it serves.

While many residents have called for burying power lines underground to prevent major power outages in future storms, underground lines are highly susceptible to flooding, which has always been a problem in Greenwich, and the cost of the process is likely beyond the town’s means. Local resident Jim Carr, however, has introduced another option to officials around town — smart-grid technology.

Smart-grid technologies, such as “smart” meters, are the future of power restoration, Mr. Carr said. They communicate succinct, instantaneous information to repair teams during an outage, instead of relying on customers to report the information via telephone.

The technology, he said, has been pioneered by several utility companies and offers advantages in meter reading, power use estimates and energy conservation.

“The philosophy is that in a town like Greenwich, there is no way to prevent power outages in the hugely destructive storms we have been subjected to lately. Instead, utilities should employ technology and creative thinking to restore power as quickly as possible,” Mr. Carr said. “The strategy [CL&P] used to restore power after Sandy was the outmoded one that smart grid technology has been designed to replace,” he said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei had mixed feelings about CL&P’s storm response, noting that the company’s “most glaring weakness” was the large gap of time between having adequate resources and actually beginning the power restoration process.

Although the crews did well in safety situations, during which, for example, first responders were trapped between utility poles and CL&P had to shut power off to allow them to escape, their response after the storm ended was lacking, Mr. Tesei said. While several CL&P crews were in town to begin supporting the town’s efforts to open roads, their efforts “could have been more expeditious,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Tesei said, he was pleased that the company was able to replace more than 330 utility poles after the storm struck, which is a time-consuming task. As far as the town’s complaints go, the first selectman said he has communicated the issues with CL&P at several meetings and hopes to see an improved response during future storms.

As for the town’s storm response, Mr. Tesei said he was grateful for its efforts.

Public safety dispatchers and first responders, in particular, “did an exceptional job,” Mr. Tesei said. The town was fortunate not to have experienced any loss of life as a result of the storm, “which is one of the most critical measurements of effectiveness,” he said.

Additionally, there were no major injuries to personnel in the field, and first responders were “very attentive” to a variety of difficult circumstances that came about during the storm, from the devastating fires that struck Old Greenwich during the storm’s height to those who had to navigate throughout the town’s 40 square miles with hundreds of downed power lines and trees.

The town’s support staff was also highly commended by the first selectman, who praised the highway department and parks and recreation’s trees division for their hard work clearing roads and making them safe and usable again.

“I was very satisfied and thankful for the effort that all made” during the storm, Mr. Tesei said. “Communication was superior.” First responders and other town employees exercised more frequent communication than in past storms and worked hard to make road closure information available to the public through the town’s website and social media. And while communication can always be improved, it was well executed during Superstorm Sandy, Mr. Tesei said.

Perhaps one area that needs the most improvement during major storms is residents’ response to emergency warnings and evacuations, Mr. Tesei explained. Although the town did well in preparing residents with information about the storm’s impact and what safety precautions to take, the town’s warnings and evacuations were not well heeded. These kinds of warnings, he said, are not to be taken lightly. “They’re done for a purpose, and the purpose is to protect life.”

With much of the immediate storm response taken care of, the town is now tabulating costs associated with the storm and submitting claims for reimbursement from the town’s own insurance company as well as from federal emergency funds provided to Greenwich for repair of structural damage to town facilities, Mr. Tesei said.

Additionally, Mr. Tesei said, he has been working with FEMA representative Gary Stanley, who plans to talk to the residents most affected by the storm about taking advantage of programs from the federal government that would provide them with the funds to renovate or rebuild parts of their homes that were damaged by Sandy.

 

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