Ridgefield first selectman angry over Eversource's communication during storm: 'It was pitiful'

RIDGEFIELD  — In light of last weekend's storm, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said there continues to be a large "breakdown in communication" with Eversource.

"They needed to work more closely between operations and their liaisons and all of the emergency management directors who were fielding calls. Our police department was fielding calls," he said. "If they want one central point of contact, that is our emergency management directors. Just about every town has one. They are formally briefed and trained, etc. We had none of that other than the liaisons and the liaisons really didn't have any information."

The storm that took place late Thursday into Friday left tens of thousands of Connecticut residents without power. Ridgefield had one of the highest power outages in the state as of 3:30 p.m. Sunday, with about 120 affected customers, equal to 1 percent of the total number of Eversource customers in town, according to the company's website. At that time, about 1,500 Eversource customers statewide were without power, comprising 0.12 percent of its total in Connecticut. 

Jamie Ratliff, a spokeswoman for Eversource, said when it comes to communication, the company uses both community liaisons and an online portal called a municipal hub, to connect with municipalities. She added only town leaders have access to the municipal hub. 

Additionally, she said Eversource's community liaisons "are in constant contact during these storms with our towns  — making sure that they're getting the information they need." 

One of the residents without power was Melanie Pearl, who spent most of Christmas without power. She didn't get her power restored until 5 p.m. Sunday. Many others on her street were out as well, she said.

"When we were out, (there were) three houses at my end of the street, a few houses around the corner and a few houses at the other end of the neighborhood," Pearl said. "When we got our power back (Sunday) night, the two houses across the street from us got new lines laid (by Eversource). They had to have their personal electrician come to connect the new lines to their houses, so they weren’t powered until mid-morning (Monday)."

Criticism of Eversource's storm response is not new and reached a peak during Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020, when some in the Danbury area lost power for about a week. Ridgefield was among the towns to testify to the communication and other issues officials had with Eversource as part of the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority's investigation into the response. The agency found Eversource didn't meet "acceptable performance standards" in preparing for, and responding to, the storm.    

Communication

After the storm, Marconi said he is not criticizing Eversource's liaison to the town.

"We're criticizing the lack of communication from operations to the liaison," he said. 

"The people that talk to each municipality to let us know what's going on  — how many trucks in town, how many crews? What are you working on? What's next? —  so we can plan accordingly and we can be able to communicate that information with our general public — that didn't exist. It was pitiful," Marconi said. "People want to know what's going on. It's like this clandestine operation that's very secretive. No one can know where the trucks are going or how many crews and that's flat out wrong. As a public utility, you cannot do this."

He said towns heavily rely upon Eversource's public liaisons, especially in times of emergency.

"The liaisons are our artery, our channel of communication with Eversource, and if information is not given to the liaison, we do not get information. That's perhaps the most glaring issue this past storm," he said. "Specifically, what we all experienced is a breakdown of communication within Eversource, between operations and the liaisons."

At the beginning of the month, Marconi said he experienced another breakdown in communication with Eversource in regard to work they performed on Prospect Street, which required the closing of a main road.   

Marconi said while that incident is separate from the storm, it "definitely exemplifies the issue of communication  — they just shut down a major street in our town for over one week with no communication whatsoever. When the account exec. was contacted, the response was, 'Let me find out what's going on.'"

Restoring power

Ratliff said in general, when restoring power, Eversource follows a very specific order of importance where emergency calls are always attended to first. 

"It starts with first responding to emergency 911 calls that involve our lines and our equipment," she said. "We're also helping communities to clear blocked roads that involve our lines or equipment."

Additionally, Ratliff said priority is also given to restoring power to "critical facilities," such as hospitals.

After that, the company targets outages that involve the largest number of customers. Once the outage numbers are lower, those final outages, Ratliff said, can often require extensive repairs that are labor intensive and time consuming.

"Whereas earlier in the storm you're getting to repairs that may take a few hours and you're restoring 1,000 customers," she said. "When you get toward the end, you may see that crews can work most of the day to repair the damage at one location that could bring power back to only one customer."

She added, in light of the weekend's storm, Eversource will reach out to Marconi to further discuss how they can better communicate and see if any changes and improvements can be made.

Generators, frozen pipes

While Marconi said more residents have generators now than in the past, there are many people who still don't own one — and not having power can potentially become a life threatening issue.

"Does every person have the money to be able to afford to buy a whole house generator so they have power when their power goes out? What happens when it's the middle of February and below zero temperatures?" he said. "Fortunately, no one that I have knowledge of died as a result of (Eversource's) slow response but someday, someone will. And it's the same old story, if we knew we had the problem, why was it never addressed?"

Marconi is conducting an analysis in Ridgefield of the number of homes that got frozen pipes while their power was out —  which only added to the damage caused by the storm, he said. 

"I specifically know one plumber in town, that his entire crew worked right through Christmas, replacing, fixing burst pipes," he said. "No one's talking about how many people have burst pipes —  The damage that was done," he said. "This is a private company's equipment that they have full responsibility to take care of and get up and running ASAP."

Marconi said he's doubtful communication with Eversource will get better  — either at present or in the future.

"They won't improve, not unless PURA (The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority), who is responsible for regulating the rates and services of Connecticut’s two investor-owned electric distribution companies, begins to really clamp down on them," he said.