Forum: UI role during Irene not very powerful
Updated 1:42 pm, Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Two months after Tropical Storm Irene felled 600 trees in Fairfield, knocked out power to 75 percent of the town and heavily damaged shoreline homes, town officials hosted a public forum Tuesday night for residents to sound off on the emergency response to the storm.
"We want to make sure we didn't miss anybody," said First Selectman Michael Tetreau. The session attracted a crowd of 15 people.
United Illuminating bore the brunt of the night's criticism, from politicians and public alike.
Warner Hill Road resident David Sturges said his Southport neighborhood was without power for a week. "Imagine if it was winter," he said. Sturges urged town officials to use their influence to push for a de-centralization of the power grid so power can be restored in a more timely manner.
"It's a matter of engineering," he said. "Don't let anybody at United `Excruciating' tell you any different."
Sturges also voiced displeasure over what he said were calls to UI that resulted only in voicemail prompts.
Calls "should go directly to somebody who can give some answers," he said. "Human beings and not voicemail. Trying to connect with a human being ... it's important in these times of crisis."
Selectman James Walsh also was dissatisfied with UI's performance.
"For the rates that we pay, their service was horrendous," he said. Walsh added that UI has "no effective website" that anybody can go to, and it fails to inform where crews will be next and how long it might be before the crews get to specific neighborhoods.
North Benson Road resident Al Menillo said a step in the right direction for UI would be to inform residents how long the wait to restore service might be.
And, he added, if a caller to UI wants human interaction, "Tell them you have a billing problem."
Tetreau agreed that UI has a long way to go in the communication department, "but the good thing is they know they have a long way to go."
However, Tetreau did also said the power company was confronted by a huge challenge since Irene cut power to a peak of about 16,600 customers in Fairfield.
Town officials on hand for Tuesday's forum in addition to Tetreau included: Scott Bartlett, superintendent of the Department of Public Works; Rich White, DPW director; Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid; Fire Chief Richard Felner; Police Chief Gary MacNamara; Deputy Police Chief Chris Lyddy; Health Department Director Sands Cleary, and Tree Warden Ken Placko.
Two Republicans that took to the podium -- Walsh and Representative Town Meeting member David Becker, R-1 -- expressed disappointment over not being able to ask questions of the town officials. Tetreau twice explained that the format was simply for the public to express concerns.
Bartlett, however, later addressed a concern mentioned by Walsh, which was that lifeguard chairs left on Penfield Beach during the storm became "battering rams against the new Penfield Pavilion," whose multi-million-dollar reconstruction had been completed earlier in the summer.
Bartlett admitted in hindsight he probably should have had the chairs removed from the beach before the storm struck. He said the chairs withstood the winds of past storms, but "this time they didn't."
Reid highlighted the town's preparedness to protect and assist residents during the storm. He said Fairfield took in up to 85 people and 15 pets at its emergency shelter.
MacNamara said the Reverse 9-1-1 notification system was effective in getting messages out during the storm, but not to those without power. As a result, command centers were set up at Sacred Heart University and also at the Shop Rite supermarket on Black Rock Turnpike, where those in need were given water, food and information, such as where public showers were available.
Tetreau said he and various department heads will review the town's emergency management plan and see what can be improved upon. Although the storm inconvenienced thousands, he said it also highlighted the good in people. Neighbors helped each other, citing examples where those with power helped others who still lacked service by running extension cords to nearby homes.
"As a community I think many of our neighborhoods thrived and learned how to come together again," Tetreau said.
Michael West, communications director for UIL, the parent company of United Illuminating, said Wednesday that consumers want real-time information in this day and age, and "Our goal is certainly to work toward providing as much real-time information as we can."
However, he said, sometimes people expect information faster than is realistically possible.
Assessment of damage and understanding the magnitude of any storm, West said, must take place before crews are deployed to cover 3,000-plus miles of overhead transmission lines.
West said UIL plans to spend $10 to $15 million over the next three years on technology "that would aid us in providing information much faster than is currently the case."