What a difference a year makes.
For CL&P, the company has seen dramatic changes in its top management and a huge overhaul in the way it handles major storms in the 12 months since Tropical Storm Irene slammed into Connecticut.
The company has created an “Emergency Preparedness Team” staffed by dozens of employees tasked solely with reviewing, updating and carrying out storm processes and procedures.
New senior VP, $40 million spent to improve system
It created a new senior vice president of emergency preparedness to oversee the team and appointed one of its executives to the job. The utility undertook a $50 million tree-trimming program that continues today in an effort to eradicate a major contributor to storm damage: An abundance of trees near utility wires.
It spent another $40 million this summer improving its electrical system in the state and undertook a four-day storm preparedness drill this summer that showed, according to CL&P Spokesman Mitch Gross, that the utility has improved its storm response efforts.
Town officials, veterans of Tropical Storm Irene, and the freak October snowstorm that followed, concede that they have been told improvements have been made. Still, they say, it will be hard to assess whether those improvements will make a difference until after the next storm.
"Until we take it out for a spin, we won't know"
"It's obvious that CL&P has made changes to be in a better position to respond," said Madison Selectman Joe MacDougald. "But until we take it out for a spin, we won't know."
MacDougald, and Selectman Al Goldberg, said the biggest problems with CL&P last time included an inability or unwillingness on the part of CL&P to communicate back to the town. While the utility did accept information from the town in terms of what it needed, when the CL&P representative based in town requested information, none was forthcoming, they said.
"I'll tell you this. It was startling to realize ... that communication had been cut off. They left their own representative hanging," MacDougald said, adding that the town was unable to let its emergency responders, including the police department and volunteer firefighters, know what kind of response to expect from CL&P or when they might be there, as the emergency responders tried to determine their plan to cut through debris and around downed wires to open up closed roads that left people stranded after the storm.
"Communication broke down"
In addition, they said, it did not appear as though CL&P had an effective way of tracking where help was needed and when. "We hope that's been improved," MacDougald said.
"Communication from CL&P to the town broke down," Goldberg said.
Goldberg noted that the utility's response to the storm was deemed inadequate by a legislative panel that evaluated the response.
"We took a look at everything from the top down"
CL&P officials say they are confident they have resolved the problems.
“We took a look at everything from the top down. We looked at every process and procedure and in many cases we’ve revamped them,” Gross said. “I think, so far, the product has been very good. We’ve also had a lot of practice this summer with all of these smaller storms. We’re knocking down those outages in better time, we’re doing a better job communicating to the towns and to our customers.”
Irene left a swath of devastation across the state when it hit on Aug. 28, 2011. An estimated 800,000 CL&P customers were left without power, some for up to 10 days. It also brought a storm of fierce criticism for CL&P and its leaders, criticism that mounted even more when a freak October snowstorm hit the state on Halloween last year.
More problems during and after the response to the freak October snowstorm
Already under attack by politicians, town leaders and customers for the way it handled the Irene recovery effort, CL&P took even more heat for the October snowstorm that again left hundreds of thousands of people without power for days.
After Irene the legislature held a series of public hearings on CL&P’s restoration efforts and dozens of town officials told similar stories of frustration and anger with what they said was a lack of communication and assistance from CL&P days into the Irene power outage.
Gross said the company took those comments “very seriously.” It’s emergency preparedness team, he said, is devoted solely to determining whether CL&P is ready when a major storm hits the state.
"Are we ready?"
“That’s what they look at all the time, are we ready?”
After the October snowstorm CL&P’s beleaguered president and CEO, Jeffrey Butler, resigned. CL&P on Monday announced his replacement, William P. Herdegen III is the new president.
Just recently the agency that regulates CL&P, the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority, issued a report calling the utilities’ storm response “deficient and inadequate” and suggested that future rate increase requests by it could be affected by its performance after Irene and the October snowstorm.
Town liasion process improved
The utility also has improved the processes of its municipal liasions, the employees who work directly with town officials during storm outages, updating them on the restoration efforts. One of the biggest complaints local leaders had following Irene was that the liasions CL&P sent out knew little about the restoration efforts.
“Our town liasion program has gone through extensive strengthening,” Gross said.
Those officials are more thoroughly trained, he said, and have new computer software that allows them to give town officials immediate information on restoration efforts. Each liasion also has met with their local official at some point over the past year so local leaders “know who to call if there’s an issue.”
Beefed up website
To keep the public informed during an emergency, Gross added, CL&P has beefed up its website to include broader storm-related information and adopted new media procedures to give the press greater access to company officials and the latest information during storms.
Still, being ready for an emergency is everyone’s responsibility, he said.
“It takes more than the utility to be ready if a major storm ever happens again,” he said. “It will take the utility, the towns, the state and everyone in the state to be ready. We’re not finished, we’re constantly examining and reexamining things to keep tweaking.”