FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – With four significant storms in the past two years, residents of Fairfield County have experienced more prolonged power outages than they would like.
Some customers went more than a week without power after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with widespread outages caused by downed wires and fallen trees in the storms. Bearing the brunt of most of the criticisms for the prolonged power outages was Connecticut Light & Power, which had hundreds of thousands of customers in the dark across the state.
"In the aftermath of a storm, a utility company must physically survey the damage to its system to learn what repairs must be made and determine how long those repairs will take,” Peter Clarke, senior vice president of emergency preparedness for Northeast Utilities, parent company of CL&P, said recently. “The No. 1 question after a storm is, 'When will my power be back?'”
For some towns, such as Ridgefield, the issue is less about implementation of new technology than it is about communication.
During Irene, Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said CL&P didn’t trust the accuracy of the numbers coming from the town about downed wires and trees, even though many of the reports were coming from first responders who were out in the storm.
After Irene, the town began taking photos with data attached from GIS, or geographic information system, so so CL&P would know exactly where and what the extent of the damage was to the power lines.
After the 2011 hurricane, the communication has improved, but it's still not perfect, Marconi said. Although Ridgefield had a great experience with the CL&P liaison passing along information after Sandy, not all towns did. That’s something that will be improved, CL&P said.
Another of the concerns is getting the line crews to the towns that need them.
During Sandy, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said the response from CL&P was disastrous. “It appears they haven’t learned anything from the last couple of major storms from last year, and, in fact, it has gotten worse,” he said during a press conference.
When asked, Marconi said power companies need to have out-of-state crews in Connecticut sooner in cases of huge storms, a practice known as mutual aid. That give personnel time to rest and learn the rules of how CL&P operates, he said. And it means that a crew from Tennessee, for example, might be working to restore power in your neighborhood.
“It all comes down to who’s available at that time,” said Mitch Gross, a spokesman for CL&P. His company is among several different organizations that provide mutual aid across the country in times of need.
In an attempt to prevent future power outages in storms, CL&P has been aggressively trimming trees across the state. And from 2014 to 2017, CL&P will be reinforcing the power grid with stronger wires across Connecticut.
But until that work is complete, Marconi says remains concerned about the next major ice storm, which is a far greater threat than another hurricane. An ice storm could knock out power and heat in a widespread part of the state. If the power isn’t fixed quickly in that sort of case, he says, there could be a tremendous loss of life across the state.