The moment hit Barbara Henry around 3 p.m. Thursday in the small town of Roxbury, where she’s been first selectman for 22 years. Enough was enough.
No crews in two days. No crews anywhere in the Litchfield County hill towns as far as she could tell. She’d tried to get a straight answer, or any answer, from the Eversource liaison assigned to Roxbury. Nothing.
Then, 48 hours after the storm knocked her town out of power — she knows of only four houses with juice — word came that Roxbury wasn’t even on a restoration work schedule.
“That’s when I lost it,” Henry recounted to me Thursday night.
It didn’t help that the town hall generator was about to give out.
She summoned Bill Cario, the only town police office on duty. On a suggestion from Bernie Meehan, the civil preparedness director, Henry dispatched Cario to the Eversource work station in Hawleyville, a section of Newtown. Rumor had it there were idle crews there.
“I said, ‘Go and handcuff somebody and bring him back here,’” Henry said.
Cario looked at her funny. “I said, ‘I’m absolutely serious.’”
Cario trekked to Hawleyville, cajoled employees and returned with one Eversource crewman in a bucket truck, no handcuffs needed. The lineman worked on a cell tower for an hour, then declared his shift was over, Henry said.
If you think she’ll sit back quietly going forward, think again. Under her direction — she swears she’s not proud of this — an outside contractor working for the town cleared trees that were still entangled with downed wires. Downed wires that Eversource had not come around and declared safe to move.
Brave? Stupid? “If it wasn’t for COVID I’d give him a huge hug, he was incredible,” Henry said, adding that contractors and the 5-person town road crew — with no help from Eversource — reopened every road in Roxbury, including two state roads, all of them blocked by Isaias Tuesday afternoon.
This is a picture of chaos. And although Roxbury may be isolated, the chaos most certainly is not. With nearly 600,000 Connecticut customers still in hot, sticky darkness, down from nearly 1 million at the peak, most of them belonging to Eversource, the company has once again botched a storm.
There’s necessary chaos and there’s needless chaos. Necessary chaos is the shutting down of a whole economy to beat back a pandemic. There was no clean way to do it but it had to happen and yes, the COVID-19 shutdowns have created havoc and uprooted lives.
Needless chaos is a super-regional monopoly electric utility with $8.5 billion in annual revenue failing to manage a restoration after failing to predict a storm path when everyone else got it right.
How much chaos? “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it’s an 11,” said Joe DeLong, head of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, who’s not typically given to overstatement.
Wasn’t Eversource the victim of fickle, unknowable Mother Nature? Nope, said Bill Jacquemin, meteorologist at the Connecticut Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. It was no mystery that Isaias was headed up the Eastern Seaboard just west of New York City, leaving Connecticut on the more severe, windward side of the storm with heavy rain squalls and a high danger of tornadoes.
“It wasn’t difficult at all. The models were really coming together,” Jacquemin said. “Over the years there have been some that were just crazy difficult.”
This wasn’t one of them. So forget the old “you can’t predict a hurricane” excuse. Besides, Jacquemin said, with few springtime storms, a dry summer and the air full of particles from the trade winds enabling more condensation, we were ripe for serious tree damage in this storm.
Eversource, in documents filed with the state Monday — after all that forecasting was clear — predicted outages of 125,000 to 380,000, and instead sustained more than 800,000. United Illuminating, with a more urban, less tree-heavy territory along the shore, where flooding wasn’t a big threat, correctly predicted a lesser hit for its territory.
Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of regional operations, contends Isaias was tough to predict. “This storm kind of wiggled its way up the coast,” he said Thursday in Cheshire, in comments reported by my colleague, Luther Turmelle. “We have two different weather services, including one from UConn.”
He said UConn updated its original prediction.
That blown forecast, in any case, might have led to the Eversource failure to line up enough restoration help until the weekend after a Tuesday storm; we don’t know yet. What we do know is that the company’s reporting system for outages failed under pressure Tuesday.
And despite a history of doing so, Eversource this time around has failed to send around people who can quickly determine wires are not live, so state, town and private crews can do their jobs.
Dozens of city and town leaders, Henry included, gave executives at Eversource and United Illuminating — which has outperformed its larger peer but still drawn criticism — an earful late Thursday in a call arranged by Gov. Ned Lamont. Many said the utilities in the past were faster to identify downed wires as live or not-live.
“That was a huge, huge area of frustration,” DeLong said, recounting the Thursday phone meeting. “We could do so much if you would just send one person for a few hours and say, ‘This line’s active, this one isn’t.’”
That’s what led Henry to take matters into her own hands in Roxbury. As she sees it, this was the tradeoff: The lines appeared dead, and she had residents trapped. What if someone needed an ambulance?
Lamont, earlier Thursday, toured one such problem area in West Hartford. A fallen tree entangled with power lines fully blocked a residential street. The governor came upon a circle of portable chairs opened in the street, near the downed tree and lines.
“Hey, is this your party?” Lamont said to Kerry Kato, in the driveway right there. “I’m just kidding.”
After a few minutes of Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, neighborhood kids and the media gaggle hanging around, some right under the tree, West Hartford Fire Chief Greg Priest had had enough. He ordered everyone, governor included, to move farther from those dangling lines — which Eversource had not yet declared safe.
Later, after apologizing to the governor, Priest told Town Manager Matt Hart, “We’re going to have to send some people out to the neighborhoods” to keep residents away from danger.
Hart, like Henry in Roxbury and so many other town leaders across the state, said he was unhappy with the small number of crews in West Hartford — one tree crew late Wednesday, not much more on Thursday, for 13,000 customers in the dark — but he was satisfied with the town’s Eversource liaison, whose territory also includes Hartford and Rocky Hill.
The network of outreach managers mushroomed after the state and municipalities identified communication as a crushing weakness of Eversource — then Northeast Utilities — in the 2011 storms, especially the Halloween Nor’easter snowstorm.
“He is a perfect gentleman,” Henry said of the guy assigned to her town. “But you know what? They’re not giving him any information to give us.”
That’s the problem as we enter the weekend: no clear schedules or time estimates for restoring power, especially in the small towns.
Hallstrom said Eversource will have 1,200 crews on the ground by Friday, up from 450 Wednesday. “We’re really starting to ramp up,” he said. “We try to work very closely with the communities, see what their priorities are.”
In Roxbury, with a post office and one general store, now closed, Henry calls the situation “a total failure,” and blames Eversource management.
The chaos in Connecticut unfolds as coronavirus, for all its evils, has delivered an influx of even more than the usual number of New Yorkers to Litchfield County. “They’re talking about going back,” Henry said, “because they’ve got to work from home.”