The storm after the storm

After the storm, the waiting — without power, without refrigeration, with cell phones dying, well water running low. Ridgefielders waited days — a week for some — to regain the comforts of a 21st Century suburban lifestyle that runs on electricity.

People were angry. And political leaders pointed criticism at Eversource, the giant utility company many blamed for not adequately preparing for a storm that could be seen speeding up the coast for days. Republican State Rep. John Frey called for a break-up of Eversource, while Democratic State Senator Will Haskell called for stricter oversight.

Wednesday morning, Aug. 12, the number of Ridgefield electricity customers without power was down to 62 — 0.56 percent of Eversource’s 10,988 customers in town. Much of the restoration happened Tuesday, as Eversource sent extra crews into Ridgefield to help the more than 3,000 customers who were still without power as of 11 a.m. —nearly a full week after they had lost it.

Statewide, the utility said it had restored electricity to all but 1,673 — 0.13 percent — of its 1,281,332 electricity customers by Wednesday morning.

Utility crews and tree crews were called in from near and far to deal with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias, which ripped through town a week ago Tuesday, on Aug. 4, leaving 8,487 homes and businesses — more than 77 percent of Eversource’s Ridgefield customers — without power the next morning.

Endurance test

Ridefielders and residents of many neighboring communities endured — as they did in previous large storm-caused power outages after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The town, various community organizations, and caring neighbors did what they could for people in a time of need. There were showers at the Recreation Center, WiFi and electrical-device charging stations at the library and both St. Stephen’s and Jesse Less churches. Bernard’s, the fancy French restaurant near the fountain, gave away meals.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi raged about Eversource’s handling of the emergency — on Sunday night, five days after the storm, 4,192 Ridgefield customers were still without power. Marconi pressured the utility to send more crews to Ridgefield to deal with downed wires so town workers could clear fallen trees and limbs to open closed roads.

Downed trees and wires could be seen all around town and Marconi said there were eight to 10 roads closed at both ends, so people in the middle couldn’t get out. And he pressured Governor Ned Lamont to lean on the utility to speed repairs.

“It’s a mess in town, absolute mess,” Marconi said last Wednesday morning after the storm’s destructive visit. “We have about 200-plus incidents of trees and wires.”

“I believe Eversource has been overwhelmed,” he added.

But Marconi also asked residents to let the utility’s line and tree workers do their work.

“Do not interrupt Eversource crews as they work towards restoration,” he said in one of numerous phone calls to homes around town on Tuesday, Aug. 11. “For safety reasons, they cannot continue to work while residents are talking to them. This wastes precious time that could be spent on restoration.”

Both Marconi and the town Office of Emergency Management repeatedly pleaded with Ridgefielders to use good sense with home generators.

“To date we have had 44 carbon monoxide calls related to this storm,” Marconi said Tuesday, a week into the emergency. “I’m asking that those with portable generators, make sure they are away from windows, doors, garages and any other ventilation that enters the house.”

Polls take aim

Ridgefield’s first selectman wasn’t alone in criticizing Eversource, as Republicans and Democrats in the legislature took aim at the utility.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Republican state Rep. John Frey called upon fellow legislators to look into breaking up the big utility company.

“Eversource has become a multi-state conglomerate,” said Frey, who represents Ridgefield. “In addition to providing electric service to 149 Connecticut towns, it also owns the natural gas provider and recently acquired the Aquarian Water utility. The focus appears to have shifted from the days of the former Connecticut Light and Power. It’s proven that it’s gotten too big to deliver reliable service.”

State Sen. Will Haskell, a Democrat whose seven-town 26th District includes all of Ridgefield, called for tighter regulation of Eversource — requiring “make safe” crews to be deployed before storms, and personnel assigned specifically to various towns — and charged the company with reaping excessive profits while neglecting service.

“Eversource’s stock valuation has nearly tripled from 2011 to 2020, the company pulled down nearly $1 billion in net profits last year, CEO Jim Judge made $11 million in 2019 alone — and Eversource’s performance in a major storm is — worse than ever,” Haskell said. “It’s time to hold Eversource accountable through increased oversight and regulation.”

Marconi voiced the town’s frustrations in his Monday evening call to homes around Ridgefield.

“Many calls received today have been from people frustrated by the lack of information from Eversource,” Marconi said. “I share your frustration. I’ve spoken with the governor multiple times, demanded additional information from Eversource and I’ve spoken with an attorney about possible legal action. I know this does not get your power back. We continue to fight for complete restoration.”

The utility company portrayed the restoration effort in more positive terms.

“Eversource line and tree crews continue working around-the-clock to repair the extensive damage caused during Tropical Storm Isaias while adhering to strict COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols,” said company spokesman Mitch Gross on Sunday. “With the support of utility workers from across the country and Canada, more than 2,300 line, tree and support crews are now on the ground.

“We know how frustrated our customers who still don’t have power are, and we have thousands of utility workers repairing the extensive damage across the state today who are relentless in their determination to restore power for all customers,” said Eversource President of Regional Electric Operations Craig Hallstrom. “We hear our customers and community leaders, and we will not rest until this massive restoration effort is complete.”

Eversource said it was providing accommodations for the thousands of out-of-state crews, and had secured more than 6,500 beds for crews, while serving more than 30,000 meals daily to the workers trying to restore power to customers.

Folks adapt

People also tried to adapt.

Watching as utility and tree crews worked on south Main Street last Thursday, two days after the storm, Grove Street resident Chris Anderson recalled the long waits for electricity after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

“It’s slow going, but everybody’s trying to be as patient as they can,” he said. “With the [coronavirus] pandemic, everybody’s nerves are fried. It harkens back to the days we were nine or 10 days of no power.”

John Guider, filling bottles Friday morning at one of three water stations the town set up — at the Playhouse, the Recreation Center, and Ridgebury Firehouse — had a similar thought.

“We got practice after those big storms 10 years ago,” he said.

”I can get in and out, no problem,” said the Cedar Lane resident. But Guider’s house has a well, and there was no electricity to make the pump work. “So, there’s no water,” he said.

Life went on.

With two thirds of Ridgefield still out of power last Friday morning, the pickleball players were out, slamming shots at each other. The skate park was full of kids. People were playing tennis.

At a pickleball court set up below the basketball net on East Ridge Friday morning, Sue MacIntee was waiting to play.

“All week, every day,” she said of the pickleball games. “At least 20 people, outdoor drop-in, 9 to 12.

“It’s been very busy,” MacIntee said. “Even with COVID, people are here during the week, with masks. I think it’s become a really popular pastime during all of this.”

But for many residents, the frustration of an extended period without power was expressed in stinging rebukes of Eversource’s response.

“What a fricking disaster,” Guider said. “And the CEO of Eversource is probably on his way to Cape Cod right now.”