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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sandy Post Mortem: Improvements Needed

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By James Lomuscio

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CL&P’s Bill Quinlan addresses meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Town, state and utilities officials convened tonight at Westport Town Hall for a public hearing evaluating the response to Storm Sandy, a post mortem that drew about 30 with more officials than public present.

The consensus: all involved performed well, but improvements are still needed.

For one, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) needs to improve its information technology to more quickly learn about downed trees and power lines, it was agreed.

“I was pleased to hear that they are actively working on integrating their information systems with those of the municipalities they serve,” First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said at the meeting’s end.

“It makes no sense to use 1970s fax technology to send them information about downed trees and power lines in Westport when that information can be transmitted electronically with pictures as necessary,” he added.

He also said he was pleased with the idea that CL&P is considering creating micro-grids in their service area.

During the meeting Allen Bomes, who serves on the Representative Town Meeting, asked why putting utility lines underground is still not a viable alternative considering the high costs of lost business due to power outages, plus the amount spent statewide on tree trimming to prevent downed wires.

“I’d like to see someone crunch the numbers and see what it would cost,” said Bomes.

Bill Quinlan, CL&P’s senior vice president of emergency preparedness, pointed out that “undergrounding is something we have been looking at for years,” but it is cost prohibitive.

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Westport Public Works Director Steve Edwards (l) and Police Chief Dale Call at tonight’s meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

“The cost per mile is between $1 and $8 million,” he said, adding that the utility has 17,000 miles of infrastructure statewide.

Quinlan noted that critical areas, such as many hospitals and police and fire departments have underground utilities, as do some major cities, “but the issue of widespread undergounding for us is significant as a state.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, who represents Westport, asked Quinlan why a “phase-in has not been considered over many, many years.”

Quinlan answered that it would take a number of years, but in the meantime the utility is spending $300 million a year on upgrading it’s 50-year-old infrastructure and an additional $60 million a year on tree trimming.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg took the opportunity to thank town officials and first responders for the work they have done battling ” four storms in two years.”

Earlier Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, who serves as the town’s emergency director, noted that his department was “quickly overwhelmed” with 600 calls for service after the storm hit.

He added the storm left 260 homes flooded, more than 30 uninhabitable, 40 struck by trees “and 400 roads that were blocked.” He praised the cooperation he received from a state task force that brought in 90 out-of-town firefighters, who with the help of the National Guard, cleared 250 calls for help.

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RTM member Allen Bomes asks about putting wires underground. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Kingsbury also advised members of the public that they have until the end of the month to register with FEMA for disaster recovery assistance.

Noting that Sandy was the fourth storm Westport faced since 2010, Police Chief Dale Call said, “We get better every time we do this.”

“Hopefully this will be the end of it,” Call said, adding that his department fielded 771 calls, 268 of them 911 calls. “What we’ve learned is that we’re actually able to handle it.”

Stephen Edwards, director of the Department of Public Works, took the opportunity to praise his crews that remained on the job from Saturday night until Tuesday.” He added that a lot of his workers, who live in hard hit Milford, were away from their families at the time.

“I applaud my people for what they did,” he said. ” ...Give them a disaster, and they step forward and do very well.”

State Rep. Gail Lavielle said improvements are needed in “the gap between the knowledge” collected at the Emergency Operations Center, and what the public learns in terms of progress, including power restoration.

“Since 2010, we’ve made dramatic improvements with the information that should be on the fingertips of each town’s (CL&P) liaison, such as where are the crews and what they are working on,” said Quinlan. “We’re in a far better position that we were two years ago.”

Joseloff agreed, saying “there was no shortage of information between us and our community liaison.”

“We had the same information on our fingertips that the CL&P liaison had,” Joseloff said.

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Most of the 30 persons who attended the meeting were town, state, and utility officials. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

He did, however, say that CL&P needed a “better integration of technology,”  to more quickly respond to problem areas.

“That’s a key focus for us,” Quinlan said.

Instead of municipalities being required by CL&P to send a fax about downed trees and wires, he said the utility is considering information sharing via “photos from an iPhone.”

Resident Richard Leyshon questioned CL&P’s restoration priorities, which he described as “cryptic.” He asked why he would see people who live 200 yards away “have power a few days before I have it.”

Leyshon also inquired why a stretch of Post Road East toward the Fairfield was without power while other areas in town were restored.

Todd M. Blosser, CL&P’s director of division operations, said that the initial restorations focus on the bulk power grid and then the largest block of customers.

“It’s like plowing the roads,” he said. “You clear the expressway first, then we’ll do the other arteries, then the side roads, then your driveway.”

Posted 12/11 at 04:07 AM

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