The most vulnerable people in Fairfield County — including the sick and elderly — were without power after Hurricane Irene for up to eight days because of poor planning, outdated mapping of electrical circuits and communication breakdowns between the power companies and all levels of government.
That's what local lawmakers and emergency responders told members of four state legislative committees Monday during a public hearing in Hartford.
Representatives of Connecticut Light & Power Co. and United Illuminating Co. defended their Irene response but admitted significant changes need to be made. An estimated 1.2 million households in Connecticut lost power during the storm.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican whose seven town district includes Wilton, Westport, Weston and New Canaan, spoke at the hearing about the need for a dramatic overhaul in planning and communications.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Republican whose district covers Wilton and Norwalk, also addressed members of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee and Public Safety Committee.
"Hurricane Irene taught us that accurate communication and a plan of action are essential when preparing for a powerful storm," Boucher said. "Executives from the state's largest utility companies recently testified before a joint legislative committee hearing that yes, they need to fix their response protocol. But will the companies take action?
"Local town leaders all reported they were completely without power and hundreds of roads were blocked. While residents sat in the dark, utilities were scrambling for workers and providing unreliable and conflicting messages," Boucher said.
"Prolonged delays impacted school closing decisions; residents with serious medical conditions; and residents with well water and septic systems who faced health concerns over whether to drink the water and how to dispose of waste," she said. "If we have learned anything it is that utilities had a communications failure and delay in response time. Forecasters were predicting a severe event and families prepared, so why didn't the utilities?
Boucher also said that "poor, decades-old mapping of electrical circuits" by the power companies also delayed the restoration of power.
"We need real time and accurate communication protocols between state, towns, customers and utilities. We need technology upgrades and should prioritize homes that are on septic systems and well water," she said. "We must recognize vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and sick, and should identify trees to be cut or trimmed on a regular basis."
Lavielle also offered testimony on the storm-related problems. "From the moment the storm ended until power was restored to the last remaining households, I was constantly receiving emails and calls from constituents seeking information," she said.
"Most people understood the extent of the damage and power restoration would be delayed, but they wanted reassurance that work was proceeding and that there was a logical plan in place. They were preoccupied by a single issue: lack of information," Lavielle said.
Most disturbing, she said, is that "customers who were disabled, ill or elderly had difficulty reaching CL&P and many had to wait until the very last days for power restoration."
Power company leaders said Irene brought down an avalanche of trees and power lines, creating extremely dangerous situations that had to be carefully repaired by expert crews.
"We have listened closely to the constructive feedback that has been shared, particularly from our customers and the towns we serve," said Bill Quinlan, vice president of customer solutions for CL&P. "As we continue to receive such feedback, we are factoring it into our plans for improving our performance in the future."
Quinlan also said his company will schedule public forums throughout the state "to develop and implement specific actions that will enhance our communications and coordination with municipalities" to ensure improved disaster response.
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