Officials blast [Eversource] for ’epic failure’ after Tropical Storm Isaias [Hartford Courant]

August 7, 2020

From the Hartford Courant:

Eversource announced late Thursday night that it will take until midnight Tuesday to restore nearly all of the hundreds of thousands of power outages caused by Tropical Storm Isaias amid growing anger over the utility’s response to the storm.

The utility promised earlier in the day to have a “very large” number of customers restored by the end of the weekend but will have to work on smaller outages into the middle of next week.

Meanwhile, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said it would launch an investigation into how Eversource and United Illuminating handled Tropical Storm Isaias. With about 40% of Eversource customers still without power, hundreds of roads remain blocked by down trees and power lines across Connecticut.

On Thursday evening, about 545,000 customers remained out of power statewide — 472,000 Eversource customers and 73,000 customers served by United Illuminating, which serves coastal areas of the state. United Illuminating said Thursday it would restore power to most customers by late Saturday.

By 6:15 a.m. Friday, the number of outages across the state dropped to almost 470,000, with 411,782 Eversource customers lacking power — about a third of them — and 58,054 United Illuminating customers.

A total of about 1 million Eversource and United Illuminating customers lost power at the peak of the outages after the storm.

PURA chairman Marissa P. Gillett joined Gov. Ned Lamont and a growing chorus of local municipal leaders who say Eversource was unprepared for the storm that hit Connecticut on Tuesday.

“There has been a significant failure in communication here, leaving upward of 800,000 Eversource customers without even a clear way to report an outage from the outset of the storm event,” Gillet said in a statement released by PURA. “There are disturbing reports emerging about the coordination, or lack thereof, between our electric utilities and the communities which they serve. This is simply unacceptable.”

Eversource said Thursday there are 516 broken poles, 3,111 downed spans of electrical wire, 174 damaged transformers, 2,225 trees to be removed and 716 blocked roads.

Eversource President of Electrical Operations Craig Hallstrom said Thursday afternoon there would be 1,200 crews working to restore power by Friday.

“We know how urgently our customers need power and we will work tirelessly — with every crew and resource we can muster — until they all have power again,” Hallstrom said in a statement late Thursday. “With crews from Canada, Michigan and Massachusetts working alongside our Eversource crews, we remain laser focused on this restoration and are committed to staying on the job around-the-clock until every customer has power back. We are grateful to our customers for their patience and recognize the tremendous inconvenience that being without electricity presents during the ongoing pandemic and hot days of summer.”

Despite the criticism of Eversource, he said the company had “sufficient” crews working before the storm.

“Whether we’re going as fast as each community would like, that’s something we work hard at, but we cannot satisfy everybody’s needs all at once,” Hallstrom said.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who requested the PURA investigation, said Eversource’s effort thus far is “not that impressive.”

“I can’t have a senior who’s living alone with no electricity and no air conditioning waiting day upon day for support,” he said. “We’re going to have plenty of time to Monday morning quarterback this, but right now our priority is getting your power back as soon as we can … I’ve been told not to make any promises on behalf of others except for the fact that we’re going to be focused like a laser beam until each and every one of you gets your service back.”

Lamont said the state Department of Labor, already struggling with massive unemployment claims because of the pandemic, is running on a generator that could fail at any time. Several state police barracks and public safety centers are also still running on generators, he said.

‘We’re angry’

Since the storm struck Tuesday, line crews with Eversource and United Illuminating have made some progress restoring power to customers, but frustration continues to mount for state and local officials who say Eversource’s response has been slow and inadequate.

Eversource told municipal leaders on a call Thursday afternoon that they would almost double their number of crews on Friday and already have restored some 193 “critical facilities,” such as sewer treatment plants and town halls. They still have another 600 critical facilities to go, however, and town leaders lamented their response so far.

United Illuminating has not escaped criticism either and on Thursday afternoon the city of Bridgeport became the first municipality to the utility to court.

Bridgeport officials filed a motion in Superior Court asking a judge to compel the utility to hire more crews on its own dime, provide accurate restoration estimates to the city’s emergency operations center and expedite certain restorations involving public health, such as senior centers, according to the filing.

In Vernon, leaders from numerous eastern Connecticut towns lined up Thursday afternoon to blast the company’s handling thus far of the storm and the damage.

“We’re angry,” said Vernon Mayor Dan Champagne, who is also a Republican state senator for the 35th District. “All of our communities were prepared for the storm. They called for winds up to 80 miles an hour. Eversource should have been ready for this and they were not. We were. And all of our towns … were ready.”

Cleanup efforts in Vernon have been hampered by having only one Eversource crew available to clear downed power lines, Champagne said.

“This is an epic failure,” Champagne said, adding many residents of Vernon and nearby communities rely on water from wells that require electric pumps.

In the aftermath of the October snowstorm in 2011, that devastated the state and knocked out power for a week for many customers, town and cities worked with the power company — then known as Northeast Utilities — to come up with protocols about communications and other matters, Manchester General Manager Scott Shanley said. And the system worked during storms since then, he said.

“In this storm it completely fell apart‚” Shanley said. “There’s just no communication and that’s the toughest part.”

Firefighters in Tolland had to wait more than an hour to respond to a call for live electrical wires that had fallen onto a car, Tolland Town Manager Michael J. Rosen said.

And in Coventry, Town Manager John Elsesser said a sewage pumping station in his town is running on a generator. If it fails, sewage will be dumped into Coventry Lake.

In other communities, public works and tree crews were standing by Wednesday night for an Eversource line crew to arrive, but none showed up,

In West Hartford, where more than half of the town is out of power, there was only one Eversource crew working Wednesday night, town officials said.

“The No. 1 thing we need is resources from Eversource — as many crews as we can get,” West Hartford Town Manager Matt Hart told Lamont at a briefing Thursday.

Asked at a press briefing if Eversource was should have erred on the side of caution in preparing to respond the storm, Hallstrom said the company did.

“We’re conservative in what we do and how we plan,” Hallstrom said. “We know we put our plan into place, we do the best we can to determine how many resources we need. You can’t hire thousands and thousands of crews based on ‘we just want to be prepared.’ Economically, financially, that just doesn’t make sense. We make the best prediction we can, and then we adjust accordingly.”

In documents filed with the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, Eversource said it had planned for a storm with as many as 375,000 outages. At its peak roughly 1 million customers in Connecticut were without power. PURA’s Gillett and Lamont say Eversource vastly underestimated the storm.

On Thursday, major thoroughfares in many communities remained blocked by fallen trees with electrical wires entangled in them. Until the wires are cleared, the trees cannot be safely removed, local officials say. Live wires also continue to crackle more than 24 hours after the storm moved through the state .

State Sen. Norman Needleman, D-Essex, chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, said Thursday that his committee will be holding hearings in the next legislative session to dissect the utility companies’ response to the tropical storm.

“It’s clear that at least Eversource was blind-sided by this storm,” Needleman said. “This was a failure a long time in the making and we plan to find out why they haven’t mustered together enough crews to deal with this storm.”

Historic devastation

Two men have been killed as a result of the storm, in addition to the immense damage to infrastructure and property across the state.

Raymond Schultz, a 66-year-old Naugatuck man, died just after 3:30 p.m. Tuesday during the height of the storm when he tried to remove branches from in front of his vehicle on Andrew Mountain Road and was struck by another falling tree, police said.

On Thursday, officials announced Stephen Caciopoli, a 33-year-old Newtown man, also died in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He was trying to help a neighbor remove a downed tree with a portable masonry saw when it kicked back and cut his neck, Newtown police said. He was transported to Danbury Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The storm also caused “historic devastation and ranks among the most serious to ever strike Connecticut,” sparing no town in the state, Eversource said.

“We’re still pressing on,” said Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross. “We have excellent weather conditions today. That will certainly help the crews in their efforts.” The crews are working with town crews to clear roads, he added.

The number of line crews swelled to about 700 by the end of Thursday and another 677 are scheduled to arrive Friday, more than triple the number of crews available on Wednesday, Eversource officials said.

Crews have been called in from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Canada to aid in restoration efforts, Eversource officials said.

“There are hundreds of utility poles that need to be replaced as well as extensive length of overhead electric line that will need to be rehung,” Gross said.

“Trucks and people are everywhere,” he continued. “It’s a non-stop 24/7 operation for as long as is needed.”

Also Thursday, Lamont activated the Connecticut Army and Air National Guard to help clear roads. Four teams will be assigned to clearing downed trees and other debris.

Trouble clearing roads

Some town officials across Connecticut say they have still not received word from Eversource on when they will begin to see restoration efforts.

Eversource serves 149 of Connecticut’s 169 towns, and the outages represent roughly 40% of its customers. United Illuminating outages totaled about 23% of its customers on Thursday.

In Avon outages declined from about 98% of the community to 70% as of Thursday morning, according to Eversource.

Jim Rio, the town’s director of police services, said Eversource crews are working in town and helping public works crews clear blocked roadways.

“Our big holdup is Eversource,” Rio said. “We can’t clear certain closures or precarious situations if it involves wires unless they’re present.”

Avon Town Manager Brandon Roberts said power was restored to busy Route 44, although many other roads remain blocked.

In neighboring Farmington, a combination of downed trees and lack of electrical service caused gridlock across the town on Wednesday. Route 4 was down to one lane near Brickyard Road because of downed trees. And westbound traffic was backed up nearly to I-84, police chief Paul Melanson said.

Melanson described the damage to trees and the electrical infrastructure in town as “massive.” About 70% of the town was out of power Thursday evening.

“We’ve been greatly impacted by this,” he said. “The majority of our residents are without power and there’s significant and extraordinary damage to the electrical system with large trees that are blocking roadways with power lines across them.”

Hours of pleading got an Eversource lineman and tree crew into Farmington Wednesday night and together with Farmington public works crews and police they were able to clear most blocked roads, Melanson said.

“They worked so hard and it was phenomenal,” Melanson said. “We’re really appreciative of that.”