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In the Suburbs / Communication short-circuited by utilities during storm

Published 12:51 pm, Thursday, November 15, 2012
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In the days following Hurricane Sandy, utilities across the tri-state area worked day and night to restore power to millions of customers. I applaud their efforts and was grateful to have my power restored after seven days without it.

But I have an issue with the communication failures of my utility and others in the wake of this disaster. Their lack of communication overshadowed the dedication and 24/7 efforts of those utility employees who were in the trenches and flooded areas risking their lives.

With all the preparation tri-state utilities allegedly did this time compared with Tropical Storm Irene last summer, communications officials at United Illuminating Co. and Connecticut Light & Power missed the boat. The only question in the minds of customers struggling in the cold with no electricity was, "When will my power be on?"

Yes, in the aftermath of disaster, many of us revert to childhood and focus on "me, me, me." But why weren't utility officials on the airwaves and giving the press detailed explanations for delays and schedules for restoring power?

Sure, I saw plenty of headlines about which Connecticut areas had come back on line, but beyond that, I had to call, go through prompts and delays and when I finally reached representatives -- I called four times -- those representatives told me nothing!

The communications failure was crisis management at its worst, and I hold both UI and CL&P accountable for that.

And if they challenged me to do a better job, I'd accept it in a heart beat. I'd tell them, "Just put me in a room with your CEO and senior management. I'd gladly deliver."

On Long Island, utility customers' nerves were frayed beyond repair by Long Island Power Authority's lack of response. I very quickly got tired of LIPA's senior management consistently saying they had no answers or "no comment."

LIPA customers got tired of it, too. Many joined forces to file a lawsuit earlier this week, and their voices were loud enough to force the CEO's resignation Tuesday.

If LIPA had a solid crisis-management plan that included press briefings and making senior management directly available to the media, the CEO would not have been under as much pressure. He would have been under fire for lack of preparation, but he could have been applauded for candor if he had simply told his customers the truth.

Many people on Long Island lost everything. Those with something to salvage wanted answers and assurances that power would be restored well before Thanksgiving. I think LIPA was "snowing" New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and someone high up in the organization had to pay.

In a radio broadcast Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, asked how his state's utilities performed, that he just wished they had done as much communication as power restoration. Amen.

Utilities in all three states failed to communicate enough, and customers will remember that for years. I certainly will.

What I have also found laughable, are some utilities' announcements that they will move forward with planned rate hikes. And they are certainly happy to communicate that information very openly. What's wrong with this picture?

I have been a UI customer for 30 years and fortunately have had few power outages from storms. But none were as long as this one, and my utility, like the others, clearly missed the boat.

I hope the communications teams are at the drawing board.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.