CL&P's Scorecard: Better, Not Perfect

Six Things That Improved

On the Saturday before Sandy hit, there was some confusion about whether Connecticut Light & Power could dedicate a line crew and a tree crew to every town from the start.

With some help from the governor, the problem was resolved. By Sunday night, many towns had linemen, working with local officials and cruising the roads — long before the first gust of storm wind.

Setting aside the question of whether that was a needless precaution, it symbolizes CL&P's hyper-readiness mode a year after customers, government officials and media heaped criticism on the utility for its response to the October snowstorm.

Certainly there was some criticism of CL&P's performance this year, from union leaders who cite operations issues to towns that had significant outages for the better part of a week. But, overall, the consensus was that CL&P handled Sandy better than Tropical Storm Irene or the October snowstorm of 2011.

"There was clearly more preparation in advance of this storm," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a top aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spent many hours in the state's emergency operations center.

And communication, the biggest bugaboo after the snowstorm last year, was far better, though not perfect.

What's harder to judge, however, is how much improvement the company showed in actual performance on the power lines.

If you look at the first seven days after each storm, the average daily reduction in the number of customers without power was actually lower this year than last year, when the company was slammed for incompetence.

But there were clear differences in performance — including how quickly CL&P was able to get outside crews into the field and its focus on clearing roads as fast as possible — that may well have helped save the company from another embarrassing debacle.

Some believe the CL&P performance in the post-Sandy recovery, deploying upwards of 7,000 staffers and contractors, looks all the more favorable in comparison to the mistakes of last fall. Occhiogrosso sees it the other way.

"I think people would have been much more willing to view their performance favorably this time, had last October not occurred," he said. "There were still a lot of hard feelings from last year."

Last year's problems are well documented in at least four formal reviews done for the state and the company. This year, under new state rules, a formal review will happen. What will it find? Here's a breakdown of six things that went better for CL&P.

Feet On The Street

For all the talk about preparation and communication, nothing says "we care" more than sending manpower out to the streets — early and often. By Day 1 — Oct. 29, the day storm Sandy hit — CL&P had 730 line crews in place, all but 200 of them contractors from out of state. That was somewhat short of the 900 the company hoped to have, but Bill Quinlan, CL&P's senior vice president for emergency preparedness and the point man throughout the storm, had been careful not to promise the larger number.

By contrast, CL&P didn't have 700 crews in place until Day 5 after Irene and Day 4 after the 2011 snowstorm.

The vast majority of the out-of-state help came in the form of smaller private firms sending crews, not mutual aid from other utilities — most of which went to New York and New Jersey. The smaller firms are part of the nature of the business in an era when utilities run leaner. But not everyone was happy with the results.

"These little companies that are storm chasers, they're not up to snuff with the rest of the industry," said John Fernandes, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 457, which represents linemen. "In the past, you would have a train of trucks from large utilities. Now, you've got two here and three there."

Fernandes said many of those firms sent excellent crews. But for some, he said, training and equipment were inferior, which slowed the recovery. It's true that IBEW is trying to compel the company to hire more linemen, but it also makes sense that hiring crews from many firms could bring more risk than getting them through other large utilities.

CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross said there were no problems with out-of-state crews. "When we get commitments, it is our understanding that they are all fully qualified," he said.

There were some operations issues in the field, inevitably. For example, residents of a Guilford neighborhood had power restored on Day 5, only to lose it a few hours later. Some were told by public safety responders that three transformers had exploded. It's too soon to know publicly whether any specific incidents of that sort were the result of a crew's error, and if so, what crew. But, Gross said, CL&P will review everything the company did in the recovery.

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