By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
12:09 PM EDT, October 4, 2011
HARTFORD - After an intense storm of complaints when Tropical Storm Irene plunged more than half the state into darkness, the Senate Democrats called Tuesday for better tree trimming and improved communication between utilities and town leaders.
The Democratic recommendations also call for improved annual testing of the Reverse 9-1-1 system, which would allow towns to simultaneously notify citizens of an emergency or an evacuation. The evacuations, for example, were crucial in East Haven as the town ordered the departure of residents as Irene barreled into waterfront homes along Cosey Beach Avenue. Many homes were damaged, and some were completely demolished as the storm surged at high tide and sent powerful waves that buckled concrete and turned homes into piles of rubble. But local leaders said that the evacuations played a key role as no injuries were reported despite the massive damage.
Prompted by two days of public hearings that lasted 15 hours, lawmakers gathered and summarized the ideas that were broached in the hearings by mayors, utility workers and citizens who had been out of electricity for as many as nine days.
Sen. Edith Prague, an outspoken Democrat during the joint hearings in front of several legislative committees, said one of the most important recommendations is one calling for creation of a comprehensive list of all citizens who have special medical or physical needs, such as being confined to a wheelchair, needing dialysis or surviving on oxygen.
“This is particularly important for the elderly – more and more of whom live independently in their homes – who aren’t always able to adjust to adverse circumstances like power failures, property damage and road closures,’’ said Prague, who herself is a senior citizen.
The Democrats say that the list “must be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act’’ in order to protect the privacy of the citizens who decide to be on the list. Any proposed changes to the FOI laws usually cause controversy at the state Capitol, and the issue is expected to be discussed in the future.
As part of a broad recommendation to improve communication between the towns and the utilities, lawmakers called for each town to update a comprehensive list each year that outlines all nursing homes, hospitals, business centers, and grocery stores that need to have power restored immediately. In addition, regular planning meetings could be scheduled annually so that town and utility officials could develop working relationships before a crisis hits.
Lawmakers also called for the Council of Governments to create regional response plans that would include the designation of shelters, communication centers, and command centers.
“I believe going forward we can avoid a lot of this miscommunication and misery if we work not bottom-up, but top-down on a regional basis to talk with the utility companies and then relay that information down through regional planning organizations, out into the town level and then into neighborhoods, streets, and homes,’’ said Sen. Steve Cassano, a Manchester Democrat who chaired part of the hearings involving municipal leaders.
One of the constant complaints during the hearings were that workers from out-of-state utility companies arrived in Connecticut and simply sat in their trucks because they did not receive immediate instructions from the Connecticut Light & Power Company. As such, lawmakers say that there should be better management of the out-of-state workers, as well as better coordination between the line crews and the local municipal workers who cannot clear the roads until the power is turned off on downed electric lines.
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