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11/12/2012 01:58 pm ET

Connecticut Power Outages After Sandy Highlight Preparation Lapses

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Five days after Hurricane Sandy slammed into his neighborhood, Ned Paul sifted through wet piles of garbage on his front lawn. On the mile-long stretch of Reef Road that runs down to Fairfield Beach, flood waters had risen three to four feet above ground level, flooding Paul's basement and submerging his home's electrical panel. Stuffed garbage bags and ruined possessions lined the sidewalks before neighboring homes, waiting for a trash pickup residents hoped would come soon.

"This was my whole life," Paul said, referring to the boxes of destroyed books, letters and photo albums. "I've been living here 17 years, and this is the worst. I've had an inch or two of flooding, but never four feet."

In Connecticut, where Sandy left more than 600,000 homes without power, the storm was merely the latest event to raise questions about the state's vulnerability to natural disasters.

Last year, after an early snowstorm knocked out power for more than 750,000 Connecticut residents, the state government and utilities companies began working to better prepare the electrical grid for another severe weather event.

But preparation efforts weren't enough as Sandy barreled through the Northeast, leaving roughly 30 percent of customers in Connecticut without power. More than 90 percent of the outages reported by Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P), the state's largest utility company, were caused by trees and limbs falling on power lines. But along the coastline -- including in the town of Fairfield, which is served by the United Illuminating Co. (UI) -- many outages were caused by flood waters.

Following last year's October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy had formed a "two-storm" panel, and in January he proposed a number of storm preparedness and recovery initiatives. Among them were utility performance standards, aimed at issues of staffing, planning for and recovery after storms and other emergencies.

The "storm bill" passed the Connecticut General Assembly in May, and the specific benchmarks and standards for utilities were released by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority last week, according to a spokesman for the governor's office. One particular provision triggers a regulatory review if 10 percent of a utility's customers are without power for 48 hours.

Also in the works is a comprehensive energy bill, which includes strategies to strengthen the state's power infrastructure. It aims to increase spending on tree trimming, pole and wire maintenance, and technology that would allow outages to be tracked and restored more quickly "while providing better communications with affected communities and individuals." The comprehensive bill is now in a two-month review period and available online for public commentary.

Better communication certainly would have helped in neighborhoods like Fairfield Beach. "I've received no phone calls, no emails, no information," Paul said. "I'm disconnected from the world, and it's very difficult to communicate. I tried calling UI, but I couldn't get through and then my cell phone died."

UI has not responded to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.

Local utility workers have themselves raised complaints about understaffing. CL&P, which serves 149 of the state's 169 towns and 1.2 million customers, is currently in a labor dispute with the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The union has been pushing for increased hiring on repair crews for several years.

"We've been understaffed for a long time," said Frank Cirillo, the business manager of IBEW Local 420. "We started going to the legislatures around 2007 for our need of more workers. Now here we are with another storm, and we're less staffed today than we were a year ago during the end of the October snowstorm."

Cirillo was also critical of CL&P's leadership, arguing that officials lack expertise in electrical transmission and distribution, which results in poor execution on the ground.

Situation reports released by the U.S. Department of Energy in the week following Hurricane Sandy showed that Connecticut was one of the hardest-hit states -- and also one of the slowest to recover.

CL&P didn't announce estimates on when most outages would be restored until three days after the storm hit, and was also one of the last utilities in the region to give customers a restoration timeline. After the October 2011 snowstorm, the utility had released an estimate more promptly, but then received harsh criticism from media and state officials when it missed its own deadline.

In response to allegations of understaffing, the utility argued that it simply wouldn't make sense to hire more full-time line and electrical workers. "We staff according to the work. That's it," said Mitch Gross, spokesman for CL&P. "It wouldn't be prudent to hire dozens and dozens of additional line workers just to have them sit."

Gross also pointed out that the utility brought in almost 2,000 additional contractors from other states to assist in restoration after Sandy.

Regarding the delay in alerting residents when they could expect to have power again, another CL&P spokesman, Frank Poirot, said that the utility's officials took "the time they needed to provide customers with an accurate estimation."

In the wake of Sandy and then another early snowstorm, Connecticut utilities had restored power to nearly all residents by Friday, Nov. 9, according to the Associated Press.

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