By Wayne Jebian
As Connecticut, so far, is dealing with a mild winter in terms of snowfall and power outages, the question is being asked: has a new state law on emergency preparedness and response improved how utilities respond to severe weather?
Natural disasters affect rich and poor, politicians and constituents, alike. When asked to describe Bridgeport during and after Superstom Sandy, state Sen. Andres Ayala had a vivid recollection: “Dark.” While the effects of Sandy in the Latino neighborhoods of Bridgeport were serious, residents elsewhere along the coast saw their properties completely devastated. The October 2011 Nor’Easter saw some of its most severe impacts in the affluent neighborhoods throughout Greater Hartord, where downed trees made roads impassable and thousands went without power for 10 days or more.
In response to that storm and Hurricane Irene two months earlier, the General Assembly took decisive action to step up emergency preparedness, as alluded to by the governor in this month’s State of the State speech. The resulting law, PA 12-148, which mandated increased coordination and accountability among all utility providers, passed unanimously in both chambers. The law addressed everything from tree trimming to cell phones and required minimum service standards of cable television, power, telephone and water companies.
The question is, did it make a difference?
“It depends who you’re talking to,” said Ayala. “I was without power for about three days, and there were other folks that were without power for six, seven days.” Ayala said that overall, it was tough to compare disaster responses because the storms were so different from each other. “I would say that the size of the storm was double what Irene was. As a result, we had more power outages than with Irene.”
Many of the residents who lost power were serviced by United Illuminating Company (UI), and one reason that the three-day figure for power outages among UI customers was the most common was that the company deliberately shut down power stations for that period to protect them from more extensive damage from flooding. “If we hadn’t de-energized those substations, Bridgeport would have been out in many sections for weeks,” said Michael West, director of corporate communications at UI.
West continued, “We had more crews on the ground before Sandy hit than we had at the peak of Irene. In terms of what we have done in between [Irene and Sandy], we are constantly looking to find ways to better our work and our performance during those storms and outages. We have found that it is centered around the ability to get customers information as quickly as we can and as responsibly as we can. It’s a constant work in progress.”
When asked whether any of these improvements were in response to the measure taken by the state legislature, West responded, “Which measure is this?”
Bridgeport officials describe a laudable response from state and local officials during the emergency; however, like UI, they were unable to say whether the legislation helped, or whether it was simply a matter of decisive leadership in the moment.
“The governor did send the National Guard to help out in Bridgeport and elsewhere, and they were helping to assist our officers,” said Elaine Ficarra, the city’s director of communications. “Overall, it was fairly quiet. People seemed to be trying to take it in stride, which is always difficult when you are without power.”
“I think that the city of Bridgeport did a great job in terms of getting people out of harm’s way,” said Ayala. “Through its command center and the work that the mayor did, they did everything humanly possible to try to protect life and property, and as a result, there was no loss of life.”
State Sen. Edward Meyer, (D-Guilford), whose coastal district lies east of Bridgeport, said that the legislation was working but that there were areas of weakness. “I think in my district and probably statewide, the utilities did a better job because of the performance standards that we had enacted last spring, but there were pockets of serious failure. We had a serious deficiency in [Madison and Guilford]. The effect of that was that our schools and downtown businesses were out of power for a whole week.” These were areas serviced by Connecticut Light & Power.
One problem with the legislation could be that more time was needed to make improvements to disaster response, time that the state didn’t have due to the short interval between storms. On the other hand, with Irene and the October 2011 storm still fresh in everyone’s mind, state and local leadership favored vigilance over preparedness. The biggest problem of all may simply the limited impact of legislation on the weather.
Ayala summed it up: “We can make all the laws that we want, but Mother Nature has a way with doing away with our laws. We can always prepare more to ensure that we try to put everything in place, but ultimately, it’s nature, and we have to understand that.”
By Wayne Jebian