Tempers flare during Conn. power outages
Saturday, November 5, 2011
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Tempers are snapping as fast as the snow-laden branches that brought down power wires across the Northeast last weekend, with close to 300,000 Connecticut customers still in the dark and the state’s biggest utility warning them not to threaten or harass repair crews.
Angry residents left without heat as temperatures drop to near freezing overnight have been lashing out at Connecticut Light & Power: accosting repair crews, making profane criticisms online and suing. In Simsbury, a hard-hit suburban town of about 25,000 residents, National Guard troops deployed to clear debris have been providing security outside a utility office building.
At a shelter at Simsbury High School, resident Stacy Niezabitowski, 53, said Friday she would love to yell at someone from Connecticut Light & Power but hadn’t seen any of its workers.
“Everybody is looking for someplace to vent — not a scapegoat, just someplace to vent your anger so somebody will listen and do something,” said Niezabitowski, who was having lunch at the shelter with her 21-year-old daughter. “Nobody is doing anything.”
The October nor’easter knocked out power to more than 3 million homes and business across the Northeast, including 830,000 in Connecticut, where outages now exceed those of all other states combined. Connecticut Light & Power has blamed the extent of the devastation partly on overgrown trees in the state, where it says some homeowners and municipalities have resisted the pruning of limbs for reasons including aesthetics.
The company called the snowstorm and resulting power outages “an historic event” and said it was focused on getting almost all power back on by Sunday night.
For some residents still dealing with outages, no excuse is acceptable.
In Avon, a Farmington Valley town where 85 percent of customers were still without power on Friday, town manager Brandon Robertson said he faulted CL&P for an “absolutely unacceptable and completely avoidable” situation. He said the high school being used as an emergency shelter was still running on a generator. Although public works crews had cleared most of the town roads, he said, more than 25 still were blocked as they waited for CL&P crews to clear power lines.
“Our residents are angry. We’re angry,” he said. “It’s just really shocking.”
The person who has taken the brunt of the public scorn is CL&P’s president and chief operating officer, Jeffrey D. Butler. He has been appearing with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at daily news briefings, but he was left to face a grilling by the media on his own Thursday night when the governor left the room after criticizing the slow pace of power restoration.
Butler said he was sorry so many residents have been left without power for so long during the chilly nights. He said Friday his own house in the Farmington Valley has been without power since a generator failed, and he urged customers to remember the extent of the damage.
“People need to keep in perspective the magnitude of damage,” he said.
The outages have driven thousands of people into shelters in New England and have led to several deaths, including eight in Connecticut. In North Brookfield, Mass., an 86-year-old woman was found dead Thursday in her unheated home.
For many without power, the past week has been a blur of moving between friends’ homes or hotel rooms with occasional visits to their own houses to feed pets and check, in vain, for electricity.
Glastonbury resident Alison Takahashi, 17, said she has bunked with friends and, for a few nights, with her parents in a hotel 45 minutes away, the only opening they could find after the storm. She said her brother, a high school freshman, also has moved like a nomad between friends’ homes all week, heading to the next when he worried he’d started wearing out his welcome.
“The cellphones are our life lines right now,” said Takahashi, a Glastonbury High School senior. “It’s the only way to know where everybody is, and if you forget your charger and your phone is dead, you can’t reach anybody.”
Some Connecticut residents have vented their frustration through dark humor on the Internet, turning to social media websites to ridicule the utility — often with profanity. One person tweeted: “Really (pound)CL&P? A hamster on a wheel would be a better power source.”
A few particularly irate power customers have taken their anger out on utility crews.
CL&P spokeswoman Janine Saunders said some hostile customers have approached the crews, but she declined to provide details. A police officer posted outside the utility’s office building in Simsbury along with a National Guard soldier said line crews had been threatened and they wanted to make sure people could complain without letting things get out of hand.
The utility urged the public via Twitter not to harass or threaten the line workers.
Saunders said the utility understands what people are going through and has stressed to customer service employees that they need to be empathetic.
“If people want to vent, call us, see us on Facebook,” she said. “We’re doing our best to try to respond to people and answer questions in those medium. But let the folks out in the field do their job.”
In Massachusetts, where tens of thousands of customers were still without power, the National Grid said in a statement there have been “only a couple isolated incidents” and that most customers have been thanking crews for their work: “They are demonstrating their appreciation by bringing crews coffee and food.”
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick asked state utility regulators on Friday to conduct a formal investigation into how the state’s major power companies prepared for and responded to the outages.
In Connecticut, CL&P has promised to restore power to 99 percent of its 1.2 million customers by Sunday night. Butler, the president, said more than 1,740 crews were working and the utility was prioritizing schools and polling sites for elections on Tuesday.
Simsbury resident Chris Gauthier, 47, said he was frustrated the power lines weren’t maintained better before the storm, but he said he was too busy to worry about who to blame. Every day, he wakes up before the rest of his family to start a fire in his den’s fireplace. He and neighbors were clearing a dozen fallen trees around his house with hand saws Friday as National Guard troops removed debris from the street.
“I have better things to do than dwelling on who’s to blame and stuff like that,” he said. “There are trees to clear and these guys (his three children) to feed and keep warm.”
First Selectman Mary Glassman, of Simsbury, said many homes are still not reachable by car because of downed trees and power cables, and officials are concerned for the residents’ safety as people in cold houses resort to driving across power lines to seek shelter elsewhere.
“We’re concerned people are getting to their wits’ end,” she said.
Some business owners already were planning to pursue compensation from CL&P for their losses.
In Canton, Asylum Hair Salon owner Scott Simmons filed a negligence lawsuit against the utility to make up for $1,000 in lost business from Saturday to Wednesday. He said other businesses owners who still don’t have power are taking a much bigger hit.
“I just think it was completely mishandled,” Simmons said of CL&P’s response to the outages.
A CL&P spokeswoman declined to comment on Simmons’ claims.