Editorial: Utility Storm

The politicians have been up in arms about Eversource’s response to the storm. The guys with chain saws were out working.

The politicians have been up in arms about Eversource’s response to the storm. The guys with chain saws were out working.

Mack Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

Nobody’s happy with the power company. And with good cause.

To quote the president in a different context, the crisis over the massive power loss in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias really will “sort of just disappear” in days to come.

Power will eventually be restored to the more than 1 million Connecticut customers impacted by the August 4 storm. What won’t disappear so easily are memories of lapses by power companies. While blackouts like this were once more of a novelty, state residents have fresh recollections of the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in October 2011 and Superstorm Sandy a year later.

Eversource and United Illuminating have reportedly invested taxpayer funds in making the grid more resilient since then. The “save our trees” movement that was active in town before those big storms has largely disappeared, and Eversource seems to have been more diligent with tree trimming in recent years. But seeing trees, poles and branches snap like toy models on a child’s playset is a reminder of our archaic infrastructure.

Lines draped like strings across poles surrounded by aging trees are vulnerable to any significant storm. This one will lead to renewed calls for underground wires.

The only thing more intense than Isaias in Connecticut may be the outcry from municipal and political leaders. For a change, Democrats and Republicans are on the same page.

Ridgefield’s Democratic First Selectman Rudy Marconi had a town that was 77 percent without power — some 8,487 customers, according to Eversource — and said Eversource was “overwhelmed,” while lobbying the utility company for more repair crews and the governor to lean harder on the company.

Ridgefield’s Republican State Rep John Frey called for Eversource to be broken up.

Danbury’s Republican Mayor Mark Boughton, whose city was among the hardest hit with about 17,775 homes and businesses blacked out the day after the storm, complained about a dearth of communication from Eversource. By Thursday, Boughton was a live wire on Twitter.

“CEO of @EversourceCT makes ... Drum roll please ... $19 million dollars a year. What could he possibly do so well for that kind of money?? Clearly he and his team can’t keep the lights on, or plan for a storm, or work to keep rates down.. #absurd,” Boughton wrote.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, a Democrat, meanwhile, threatened to take United Illuminated to court.

Isaias truly may be the perfect storm for the power companies. Its reach was wide, and its timing synchronized with a pandemic of a scope unseen since telephone poles were first installed across the map a century ago. From a public relations perspective, it arrived in the wake of Eversource being mandated by the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to suspend planned customer rate hikes.

It’s reasonable to have some empathy for the challenges faced by utility companies that are compromised like everyone else by coronavirus protocols. But as watching homes left without power for days, supermarkets and restaurants tossing out spoiled food and gas stations running out of fuel, it’s frightening to contemplate this occurring in the cold winter months. As human resiliency is tested in 2020, this is a profound reminder of how fragile and dependent a seemingly sophisticated society really is.

The undeniable failure of the power company rests in its abysmal communication and planning skills. Any company — or well-run household for that matter — plans for the future with best-case scenarios, realistic predictions and responses to catastrophe.

This long-term problem of crisis management will not “just disappear.” The brewing storm should be a bipartisan one demanding change.