Infographic by Lucy Arrow '21
The aftermath of tropical storm Isaias has elicited an investigation into Eversource’s storm preparation and response rate by the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), in light of widespread discontent with the efficiency of Eversource’s power line repairs among both private citizens and public officials.
According to PURA’s Notice in Docket Number 20-08-03, the investigation will assess whether Eversource adequately prepared for the storm and restored service to their customers. If PURA concludes that Eversource did not act prudently in its operating procedures, the investigation will determine how to adequately compensate ratepayers. As part of their investigation, PURA will host several public hearings and accept written comments as part of the record, PURA Director of Legislation, Regulations and Communications Tara O’Connor said.
Some Staples students who lost power during the storm felt dissatisfied with what they viewed as Eversource’s slow pace in restoring power.
“I didn’t like [Eversource’s] response as they took much longer than expected,” Tavan Bhatia ’23 said. “They could have prepared better for this storm as it was clear it was going to be bad.”
Isaias, which struck town on Aug. 4 and was the fourth largest storm to have ever hit Connecticut according to Eversource. It left 97% of Westport without power and prompted Governor Ned Lamont to declare a State of Emergency, according to WestportNow. News8 reported that a tornado also hit Westport at 1:20 p.m. on the same day, spanning a path of 50 yards and causing severe property damage to a house on Surf Road before dissipating.
Many Westport families, such as that of Viola Handal, encountered many challenges during the storm, such as the loss of not only power but also wifi.
“When we lose power we cannot use any electrical devices,” Handel said. “Based on the type of work we do, it is not only an inconvenience like being in the house during hot summer days without AC, but it’s also losing our chance to make more money as our office in Norwalk was without power too. Everything was shut down for a few days and we had trouble even with telephone services.”
According to First Selectman Jim Marpe, Eversource, which restored power to 99% of Westport a week after the storm, did not send a “make safe” crew to clear wires and debris until 36 hours after Isaias’ onset, thus leaving many streets blocked and inaccessible to first responders and leaving some residents trapped inside their homes. Eversource did not communicate the number of service crews they sent out, the location of these crews or their power restoration priorities to Westport’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and the Senior Eversource Executive that Marpe communicated with was often relying on misinformation from the company.
“Our primary problems with Eversource were the delay in initial response to the disaster and the on-going lack of communication between their emergency response management team and our EOC team,” Marpe said. “This resulted in the failure to collaborate effectively to clear fallen trees and poles on a timely basis to allow the town to help in the power restoration process.”
Marpe, who thinks it is essential for Eversource to reevaluate its protocols for disaster response and communications, believes the situation warrants at least an apology, if not resignations, from Eversource’s executive officials.
“Even if their ‘boots on the ground’ staff were overwhelmed, the higher officials still had a duty to answer calls from local elected officials so town staff and I could have given our residents more information,” Marpe said. “I do also believe that more performance-based metrics and a structure that rewards good service and penalizes poor service would bring Eversource to the real-world demands of the private sector.”
In Hartford, Connecticut Senator Will Haskell and his colleagues champion holding a Special Session in September which would aim to advance oversight of public utilities and institute performance-based incentives.
“In the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias, it’s clear that our public utilities no longer feel accountable to the public,” Haskell said. “This is not going to be easy — the influence that companies like Eversource exert in the legislature is tremendous. However, I’m optimistic that my colleagues will demand compensation for impacted customers, mandate a modernization of the grid and freeze the rate hikes that are making energy unaffordable.”
Additionally, Haskell aims to create financial incentive for Eversource to restore power more efficiently through calling on Eversource to give customers $100 bill credit for every day that they are without power exceeding 48 hours after the storm, as well as a compensation of $500 for spoiled food and $500 for spoiled medicine.
“During this trying economic time, I’ve heard from dozens of constituents who simply could not afford to lose everything that was in their refrigerator,” Haskell said. “You can’t tell me that a company whose CEO made $19 million last year can’t afford to reimburse those who have been impacted.”
In response to the widespread call for customer compensation, Eversource Media Relations Representative Mitch Gross said that the company does not provide reimbursements for acts of nature, and instead encourages customers to reach out to their insurance carrier.
Haskell believes that outages in Connecticut lasted for longer than in the rest of New England due to Eversource’s reduction of line crews in the state in favor of raising executive salaries.
“As a for-profit utility, [Eversource] will inevitably prioritize the interest of their shareholders as opposed to the interest of the public,” Haskell said. “When Eversource asks PURA to increase rates, they should be asked about their capacity to recover from a storm.”
One such obstacle hindering Eversource’s capacity for prompt storm recovery that PURA plans to investigate is the observed decrease in utility staffing levels. According to the Hartford Courant, Eversource had a peak of 749 linemen in 2008, but that number has since shrunk to 527 in 2017, the most recent statistic collected by the legislature’s research office.
While the state Senate is concerned about Eversource’s staffing rates, Marpe remains unconvinced that staffing is a primary reason behind the company’s inefficiency, instead assigning the responsibility to Eversource’s executive leadership policies.
“It is [Eversource’s] responsibility to incentivize their employees and create an environment that is attractive enough to recruit and retain quality help,” Marpe said. “[Low company staffing] sounds more to me like an excuse for poor management decisions.”
Having discussed long-term solutions to the slow utility response rate, Haskell and Representative Jonathan Steinberg believe that the best plan is to increase utility competition, adapt business models and incentivize infrastructure investments.
“Despite the well-financed special interests, we need to drag our infrastructure into the 21st century,” Haskell said. “That means burying some critical power lines, investing in shared solar, enabling micro-grids and establishing utility-scale battery storage.”
Handal agrees that upgrading infrastructure around town is a great lasting solution to minimizing the severity of damage following storms like Isaias.
“I think it is time to get rid of third world infrastructure because storms happen very often here and we all face the same problem all over again,” she said.
Another issue investigated by PURA is Eversource’s miscalculation when anticipating the number of outages Isaias would cause and thus the reparations required. In a document filed with PURA by Mark Fangiullo, the Eversource Manager of Emergency Preparedness, it states that Eversource, “is declaring an event level 4 for this event starting on Monday Aug. 3, at 7 a.m..” In reality, according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the storm was a level 3 event, with more than double the 380,000 power outages that Eversource anticipated.
Despite these shortcomings, Gross points to the fact that although the damage after Isaias was more severe than that of both Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, Eversource’s restoration was completed in a 33% faster timeframe.
“We recognize the tremendous impact Tropical Storm Isaias and the resulting power outages had on our customers across the state,” Gross said. “The massive team of line and tree crews we assembled for this storm response – along with the hundreds of employees supporting the effort behind the scenes – did an incredible job working tirelessly on this historic storm restoration.”
Finn Wolter ’23 concurs that even though the response wasn’t as efficient as he would have liked, it also wasn’t as terrible as some make it out to be.
“I feel that [Eversource was] late to start on getting power back [for Westport], but when they started to get it back, it came back fast,” Wolter said.
Despite the frustration many Westport residents faced during Isaias, as one of the hardest hit communities in Connecticut, Marpe applauds them for bonding together to overcome the hardships they encountered.
“While I am very saddened and angry to know of the strife Westport residents faced during this storm, I am also very proud of the strength and comradery shown within our community,” Marpe said. “We should not forget this experience when the lights turn back on and instead, remain engaged in the issue of utility oversight.”
This story was originally published on Inklings on August 31, 2020.