Tell us the bad news early.
Frustrated town officials from Simsbury, Tolland, Somers, and Roxbury delivered that message when they testified in front of Gov. Dannel Malloy's Two Storm commission Tuesday as huge mounds of brush remained piled along the streets across the hard-hit Farmington Vallley.
The hearing was designed to illuminate the lessons learned from two of the worst storms in Connecticut history - Tropical Storm Irene and the freak, pre-Halloween storm that plunged more than 800,000 customers into darkness.
As some citizens had no power for as many as 10 nights, some local leaders said that Connecticut Light & Power Company officials flat-out lied to them about the number of crews that were coming to their towns. Ever since Irene struck in the summer, mayors and first selectmen have complained about a lack of communication with CL&P.
They said they can handle the difficult news, as long as it is accurate.
Matt Galligan, the town manager in South Windsor, said that the state will have similar problems if a hurricane strikes Connecticut - unless improvements are made.
"The people of my community have told me that they don't want government run like a business,'' Galligan said. "There were times when the crews were in South Windsor, and they never told us.''
“A new and better level of partnership is needed right now between private utility counterparts and municipal officials,” said Jim Finley, the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Council of Muncipalities.
He added, "While overall feedback indicated that some municipal expectations were reasonably met, the consensus of town and city leaders -- and their residents and businesses -- is that there must be an immediate and sustained improvement in communication with municipal leaders and customers, in coordination with municipal emergency management and road crews, in order to more quickly restore power service.”
At the peak of its work, CL&P had 1,800 line crews that included two electrically qualified workers and one truck.
Mayors and first selectmen have been highly frustrated by CL&P's response in the Halloween storm.
Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, who leads one of the hardest-hit towns, said it took nearly 13 days to hook up all the customers in the Farmington Valley.
"The town's top priority from day one was public safety,'' Glassman said, adding that the town called for the National Guard, which finally arrived on the Thursday after the storm.
Overall, 10,107 customers in Simsbury, including nursing homes, were without power. By Thursday, huge areas of the Farmington Valley were still without power. On Day 8, CL&P admitted the damage was much worse than expected.
"Our local plan worked,'' Glassman said, noting that more than 100 roads were initially inaccessible by firefighters and police. More than 7,000 people came to the local shelter at Simsbury High School over a nine-day period, including residents who were released directly from the hospital to the town's high school, she said. Families that had never stayed in a shelter before came to the school to get warm.
"Give us the bad news first,'' Glassman said when outlining the lessons that should be learned from the storm. "It's absolutely essential that the towns be given accurate information. ... Don't leave other utility companies out of the loop.''
Barbara Henry, the first selectman of Roxbury who is the chairman of the Council of Small Towns, said that getting accurate information was difficult. "I did not know where the DOT was for several days,'' she said. "We thought we would get more help from the state. ... We never saw the state DOT on our state roads. We cleaned those roads. ... We hired local contractors to help us with that.''
But Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the DOT, said that Roxbury was not treated differently from any other town in Connecticut. He added that DOT crews would not move trees that were entangled in electrical wires for fear that those wires were still live.
"The DOT was out in every single town during and after the storm, clearing fallen trees, including Roxbury,'' Nursick told Capitol Watch. "The DOT cannot remove trees in entangled power lines. It is a potentially deadly situation to do that. Severe injury potential at best. Fatal at worst.''
He added, "I am 100 percent confident in saying the DOT acted appropriately.''
When crews came in from Missouri, the process began to move faster in Roxbury. If CL&P crews had been pre-staged in the towns at the start of the storm, the system would have worked better, Henry said.
"It was not a quick clean-up. It was a disaster. It was worse than Irene,'' Henry said. "Like Simsbury, we didn't have enough resources to open our roads. ... It's how long we had to wait when we were promised that these people were in the wings. ... Like Mary Glassman said, our local plans worked.''
Initially, there was only four crews for nine towns in the Tolland area during the first two days of the storm, said Steve Werbner, the town manager of Tolland who said he had been threatened personally by irate residents. On Day Nine of the storm, 15 roads were still closed in town.
If the electrical system is down, Werbner asked if the lines could be declared dead and thus allow the town crews to move the lines to clear the roads.
"The plan for restoration is like a mystery,'' he said, adding that out-of-state crews report the restorations manually and thus leads to inaccurate information in the computerized map. On Sunday, the utility never reached the 99 percent goal.
"Why weren't crews rotated?'' Werbner asked. "I understand that these are horrific situations. They are out of the ordinary. ... In my opinion, [power] was out longer than was necessary.''
He added, "This will happen again - and we are primed for disaster.''
"There should be fines for failing to meet the stated estimates'' for restoration time, Werbner said.
He added that the "hangers'' - tree limbs that are holding on by a thread that could be swept down by a windstorm - are still a problem when it costs $225 per hour for a tree truck to operate in town.
Somers First Selectman Lisa Pellegrini expressed similar frustration, saying that she asked, "Where are the crews?''
When CL&P continued saying it would have 99 percent of customers hooked up by midnight Sunday, she said, "It was ludicrous to believe that would happen.'' She added, "If it is going to take two weeks, tell us it is going to take two weeks. ... If tree trimming is an issue - we knew that from Storm Irene - then something should be done about that.''
"I would have 50 crews sitting out in parking lots, waiting for direction,'' he said. "We can't have another storm with results like this. It's just unacceptable.''
Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham said the city's liaison was an auditor and accountant for CL&P.
West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said that Conard High School became a shelter overnight and that professors now know how to write a book "about how not to respond to a crisis.''
For eight hours on the second day of the storm, the CL&P liaison could not be reached, Slifka said. The telephone mailbox for the liaison was full.
"To get accurate information, we sent out West Hartford police officers,'' he said, adding that the CL&P crews were told not to talk to the West Hartford officers any more.
The CL&P liaison had been giving information to the town every day, but that stopped when the town was told that the document had proprietary information, Slifka said.
"The cherry on top of the sundae was on Day 10 ... was an executive who came in and said, 'What can we do to help?' '' Slifka said. "Our crews were doing CL&P's work for them'' for taking down "hanging'' tree limbs that were hanging on by a thread.
"In short, we know our streets better than anyone, and we can be an asset to CL&P,'' Slifka told members of Malloy's Two Storm commission. The total clean-up costs for West Hartford is about $7 million, and it is about $6 million in South Windsor.
"The liaison is only as good as the information that he or she is provided with,'' Slifka said.
"This has been a terrible experience for everybody involved. We want to make this better,'' he said.
The co-chairman of Malloy's commission, Joseph McGee of Fairfield County, asked a broad question about how the system is funded. So far this year, CL&P has spent $200 million to $300 million to rebuild its system because of the two storms.
"We're making infrastructure investments in rate cases,'' McGee said, adding that he is concerned about the standards for infrastructure improvements to withstand a Category 3 Hurricane with winds of 120 miles per hour.
Dana Louth, the vice president of asset strategy at Northeast Utilities, said that the storms are quite rare.
"These are once-in-30 years, once-in-40 years events,'' Louth said at the state Capitol complex.
CL&P has 17,000 miles of overhead wires, according to the company.
The CL&P officials finished their testimony by 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, and the commission was running behind schedule at that point. John Bilda, the general manager of Norwich Public Utilities, spoke on behalf of the municipal-owned utility that restored power quickly after the storm in a system that has 10,000 utility poles in a 30-square-mile area. The utility has 12 linemen in a system that is far, far smaller than CL&P. Norwich had very little damage in the pre-Halloween storm. Of 900-mile wires, about 20 percent is underground and 80 percent is overhead, he said. The utility has provided power to Norwich since 1904. In New England, 79 towns have local utilities like Norwich - with many of them in Massachusetts.
"We knew we had some weak leaks in the system before the storm,'' Bilda said, adding that the utility is working to strengthen the infrastructure before the inevitable next storm hits.
"We try and cut back as far as we can'' when trimming trees, Bilda said. "We look for weak links in the system that would generate heat.''
During Irene, half of the city of Norwich was out of power as the storm raced across the state.
Bilda was finished by 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the next testimony came from Robert Stein, the chairman of the Connecticut Siting Council for the past six months, and representatives of telecommunications companies. Stein noted that - unlike the power lines in many towns - cell towers do not have a problem because most cell towers are far above the trees. Some towers, however, lost electric power, and that issue will be analyzed in the future.
John R. Emra, the regional vice president for external and legislative affairs at AT&T Connecticut, said AT&T is the second largest wireless company in America and is far different from the old AT&T decades ago as the local phone company. The firm has customers from Puerto Rico to Maine.
The cell towers, he said, are designed to withstand winds of 100 miles per hour.
"We are a large customer of the electric companies,'' Emra testified, noting that there are 840,000 telephone poles in Connecticut. "We replaced hundreds of poles following both storms.''
He added, "We don't have ratepayers. We don't have rate cases.''
Some lawmakers say that there should be a generator at all cell towers to prevent outages during storms.
"What if the landlord doesn't want a generator at their site?'' Emra asked. "There's a lot of sites where you can't do generators. You can't do generators on rooftops. It's not safe.''
The panel then heard from Paul Kirshen, a civil engineer and research professor at the University of New Hampshire who has been working on climate change for the past 25 years. He is concerned about protecting the coast from rising sea levels during storm surges. One of the largest surges in recent years came when Irene barreled into the Cosey Beach section of East Haven.
"It's universally agreed that the climate is changing,'' Kirshen said, adding that it is "quite amazing'' that sea levels are rising every year. By the end of the century - 89 years from now, which is several generations away - the increase could be three to six feet. The storm surges, too, could rise by three to six feet. He said it could rise by one to two feet by mid-century - 39 years from now.
Kirshen is also concerned about infrastructure design, bridge design over coastal rivers, and the sewage treatment plants along the coast of Connecticut that could be impacted by additional water.
"The flood that we see every 100 years'' could actually occur every 50 years, he said.
"There's no way we can reverse climate change. The most we can do is slow it down,'' Kirshen said. "How are we going to protect the New Londons, the Mystics, the Bridgeports, the Stamfords? ... Connecticut is very vulnerable to coastal flooding. It is best to have planning now to manage impacts.''
After Kirshen's presentation, McGee said, "This is very sobering. ... We are certainly as vulnerable as New York City. ... It is very important that we address this in this panel.''
McGee noted that United Illuminating Co. had estimated that 300,000 trees would need to be taken down in order to get them away from the electrical power lines. McGee thanked the mayors and first selectmen before the day-long hearing adjourned at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The panel's next meeting is set for 9:30 a.m. Friday.