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Getting Ready for the Next Big Storm

Law makes utilities responsible for preparing for major weather events or pay penalty

After living without electricity for eight days following last fall's nor'easter, 80-year-old Robert Rodman was happy to volunteer his time to hold utilities accountable when they fail to adequately prepare for and respond to emergencies.

See also: Energy reform bill could lower electric rates.

So, along with several other AARP Connecticut members, he visited the state Capitol last spring to lobby legislators to support such a bill.

"AARP was supporting the legislation to make sure that the electric company took responsibility without passing the cost on to the customer," the Avon resident said.

The law directs the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to make sure the state's utilities prepare for a big storm. When a storm hits, utilities are required to communicate with municipalities and customers, and restore power within a reasonable amount of time. The PURA will determine how long an outage is reasonable and can fine companies whose response falls short. Penalties must be paid as a credit to customers and cannot be passed on to them.

Rodman and his wife, Zara, were among more than 800,000 electric customers — out of 1.2 million — who lost power during the 2011 nor'easter, some for as long as 11 days. This followed tropical storm Irene, in which more than 700,000 customers lost power, some for up to nine days.

AARP Connecticut surveyed state residents 50 and over and determined that they favored fining utility companies for slow restoration of power, said communications director Jennifer Millea. "Our members and folks over 50 in Connecticut care about this issue," she said.

Last fall, the Rodmans lived without heat for two days, sleeping in chairs by their gas fireplace to try to keep warm. They eventually got their gas heat (which relied on electricity to operate) working with the help of a contractor who charged them $200. After they ate soup and tuna for a couple of days, they drove on roads with downed wires to buy takeout from area restaurants.

Shortcomings exposed

What bothered Rodman most, he said, was "the promises and the statements that the electric company was making that there were trucks in the area and they were working on [the lines]. It may have been, but nobody saw them."

He also felt that the extent of the damage could have been reduced if Connecticut Light & Power had kept the trees trimmed and away from the power lines, he said.

Customers and municipal officials complained widely, saying the utilities failed to prepare for the storm, hire enough mutual aid crews to help restore power, and communicate honestly and accurately with local officials and customers.

Next: Serious shortcomings in state's utility. »

"Last year's twin storms caused great hardship for thousands of people, and exposed some serious shortcomings in our state's utility infrastructure and preparedness for emergencies," said state Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, chairman of the Energy & Technology Committee. "This bill will put the tools in place to minimize the outages that do occur in future emergencies, and to restore power and communications more quickly."

The law, signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) in June, requires utility companies to file plans with PURA every two years rather than every five years for how they're going to restore service in an emergency. Cellphone service providers must report on the backup power generation abilities of their cell towers. State agencies, working with municipalities, are required to develop a procedure by January for prompt road clearing so that public safety workers can get through.

Changes in the works

Connecticut Light & Power is working with PURA to develop standards to try to minimize disruption after the next major storm, said Al Lara, a spokesman with Northeast Utilities, CL&P's parent company.

"Soon after last year's storms, CL&P began the process of enhancing its emergency procedures to handle larger, unprecedented restorations and ensuring timely and accurate communication of restoration information," he said. "We've doubled our tree trimming for 2012 [trees were the major cause of the outages] to $53 million."

CL&P created regional coordination specialists who will work in five regions to help organize and communicate the utility's response to neighboring municipalities, Lara said.

The United Illuminating Co., whose customers were more affected by tropical storm Irene than by the October snows, found that the biggest concern came from municipalities that wanted to specify high-priority buildings for swift power restoration, said Michael A. West Jr., a spokesman for United Illuminating. "We've increased priority locations that they've identified."

Theresa Sullivan Barger is a freelance writer based in Canton, Conn.

Also of interest: Privacy concerns about smart meters.