Report: Conn. utility not prepared for Oct. storm

AP News
|
Posted: Dec 02, 2011 5:36 PM
Report: Conn. utility not prepared for Oct. storm

Connecticut's largest utility failed to put enough repair crews in place before a rare October snowstorm spawned record-breaking power outages affecting more than 850,000 homes and businesses, causing a delay in efforts to restore electricity, according to a consultant's report released Friday.

The report by Witt Associates, led by former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt, said Connecticut Light & Power Co. was not prepared for a storm as damaging as the one on Oct. 29.

About two-thirds of CL&P's 1.2 million Connecticut customers lost power, but the report says the company's emergency response plan for major storms relies on a worst-case scenario of only 100,000 or more outages, less than 10 percent of its customers. The utility also didn't put any of its regular crews in the field before the snow began to fall, despite its emergency plan calling for pre-positioning company personnel before the most severe storms, the review says.

"CL&P was not prepared for an event of this size," the report says, adding that "CL&P did not lean forward by pre-staging adequate restoration resources in advance of the October 29 snowstorm; this delayed the recovery effort in the first days."

The lengthy outages and CL&P blowing its own Nov. 6 deadline for 99 percent power restoration angered residents and government officials across the state. Some customers were left in the dark for 11 days until Nov. 9. CL&P President Jeffrey Butler resigned Nov. 17 amid heavy criticism of the company's response.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Witt Associates vice president Charles Fisher announced the report's findings Friday morning.

"The extent to which they were unprepared is troubling," Malloy said. "Because of that poor preparation, it's not surprising that they didn't, or that they couldn't, respond with enough boots on the ground when the worst-case scenario was compounded by a factor of eight."

The 46-page report, which Witt did for free, makes 27 recommendations for the company. The proposals include having the company improve its planning, procedures, training, pre-storm crew preparation and communication with government officials and customers. Witt also recommended that the state, cities and towns improve their emergency response plans to better address major power outages, and that utility companies work with state and local governments to improve tree-trimming efforts.

Nearly 3 million homes and businesses across the Northeast lost power after wet, heavy snow downed scores of trees still full of leaves and power lines. Hardest hit was Connecticut, where only two months earlier Tropical Storm Irene caused another 800,000-plus outages in the state. Several investigations are looking into the utility's response to both storms.

Officials at CL&P and its parent company, Northeast Utilities, are reviewing the Witt report and will decide what actions to take, but the companies have already begun considering improvements, said Charles Shivery, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Hartford-based NU. He also said NU has named a new senior vice president for emergency preparedness who is meeting with town officials to get their feedback.

"There are several areas of opportunity identified within the report and we have already started addressing some of them," Shivery said in a statement. He didn't say which areas the companies are addressing.

Shivery also noted that the Witt report identified many successes in CL&P's response, including its accurate internal prediction that power would be fully restored by Wednesday, Nov. 9, the fact that no workers were killed or seriously injured while repairing damage and the quickness in which the utility's customer service representatives answered phone lines.

But Witt also said the company unnecessarily increased people's frustration by announcing publicly that power would be restored to 99 percent of all customers by Sunday, Nov. 6, an overly ambitious estimate that wasn't vetted internally.

The report said CL&P did begin placing crews on standby the day before the storm and pre-positioned 30 contractors to fix expected damage before the storm. The report said the company had nearly 500 line and tree crews working the day after the snowstorm, a number that increased to more than 2,900 nine days after the storm as crews from other companies provided mutual aid.

The report noted that CL&P and other utilities in the region had trouble getting mutual aid crews from other companies, because workers with those other companies had to prepare to fix damage in their own areas. It also said the 11 days it took to restore more than 800,000 outages was not inconsistent with "industry benchmarks."

The Witt report focused primarily on CL&P but also looked at the response by The United Illuminating Co., which serves 325,000 homes and businesses in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas. But UI's territory wasn't hit nearly as hard as CL&P's. About 52,000 UI customers lost power after the snowstorm, and the company restored all of its service by Nov. 2.

Witt said UI's biggest challenge was providing estimated power restoration times for towns and customers. The company says it has a technology improvement plan to improve the estimates.