Connecticut’s electrical companies are working around the clock to restore power to the record number of customers who lost it as a result of Irene this weekend.
The problem, they say, is that due to the extensive damage caused by the storm, there are simply not enough available work crews to restore service to all customers across the state in a timely manner, and that some customers should be prepared to be without electricity for a week or more.
“The number one issue we have is getting the resources here,” said Jeff Butler, president of chief operation officer of Connecticut Light & Power, which represents the bulk of the state’s electrical customers. “We’re working 16-hour shifts with an eight-hour rest period.”
Butler, along with John Prete, a vice-president for United Illuminating, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy briefed the media on power restoration efforts throughout the state at the Emergency Operations Center in Hartford late Monday afternoon.
Butler said that CL&P currently had 800 two-man crews working across the state on an almost constant basis to restore power in affected areas, another 100 crews were enroute to the state to assist, and that the company was still searching for available crews as far away as Seattle or British Columbia. He said 75 percent of the crews began working around 7 a.m. this morning and would continue to work for a 16-hour shift, while another 25 percent of the workforce began working at 3 p.m. and would work a 16-hour shift until relieved by the next morning crew Tuesday morning.
“We do have 24-hour coverage and we’ll have that coverage until we get all customers restored,” Butler said.
At the peak of the storm, roughly 672,000 CL&P customers, or more than half of the customers the company services throughout the state, were without power. Butler said CL&P had restored power to about 200,000 thousand customers as of Monday afternoon, but that 570,000 customers statewide still remained without power.
“This is a moving target,” Malloy said. “You had people that went out and came back.”
Butler said that the strong rain and winds weakened a number of trees across the state, and that some customers should still expect to lose power over the next several days as more trees or branches continued to fall.
Prete said United Illuminating had a maximum of about 155,000 customers without power at the peak of the storm, also more than half of its customer base, but that by Monday afternoon that figure was down to 105,000. He said United Illuminating expected the figure to drop to about 85,000 customers without power by midnight Monday.
“At the peak of this storm, we had 155,000 customers out, that’s half our territory,” Prete said. “We did not see devastation like that since Hurricane Gloria.”
Malloy said the problem was that since Irene devastated such a large portion of the Eastern Seaboard, many of the areas that Connecticut would typically import work crews from for power restoration efforts were either dealing with power outages in their own states or were needed elsewhere.
“The nature of this problem is that the geographic affected in the United States and Canada is so vast, and the damage was so great, that we don’t have enough crews from around the country responding at the moment to Connecticut,” Malloy said.
Malloy said he planned to speak with Vice-President Joe Biden and Steven Chu, president of the U.S. Department of Energy, Monday evening to identify other areas of the country where Connecticut could import work crews.
“We’re still working across the nation looking to bring additional crews in,” he said.
Butler said that, because the number of affected customers was so great, priority needed to be given to essential functions first, such as medical and public safety facilities, and then areas that affected the largest number of customers.
“As we start into restoration, we will focus on where we can bring back the largest amount of customers the quickest,” he said.
Butler said that although he expected the bulk of CL&P customers to be restored soon, he stressed that there could be some customers in outlying areas of the state that might be without power for upwards of a week.
“Our entire service area has been hit hard,” he said. “People need to be prepared for lengthy outages. There will be customers that we expect to be out for a week or more.”
Both Butler and Prete stressed that, although they understood customer frustration over being without power for an extended period of time, the safety of the crews doing the work also needed to take priority, as most would be working 16-hour shifts for what could be a period of a week or longer.
“We are using our people to the maximum amount that we are going to use them. We’re not going to work people past 16 hours, we’re certainly not going to work them 24,” Butler said, noting that CL&P experienced a fatality during restoration efforts after Hurricane Gloria because the lineman had been working more than 19 hours straight for five days.
“My dad climbed poles for 25 years. I have the utmost respect for line workers. It is very dangerous work, especially under these conditions,” he continued. “…I take the safety of our employees and the safety of our workforce as the number one priority.”
Malloy said he would ensure that CL&P and UI officials would keep the public informed throughout the entire restoration process.
“I will personally assure you that high level representatives of these two companies will be made available to update the public on a regular basis,” he said.