From the Desk of the First Selectman: Reflecting on Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, an historic 1,000-mile-wide storm, lived up to its advance billing and smashed through Wilton, knocking power out to 50% of CL&P’s customers in just one hour! The town suffered massive damage to its power system, due to downed trees that initially closed 122 town roads, or more than a third of Wilton’s roads. Over 1,000 power location problems were reported, which at the peak, cut power out to 83% of the community.

Fortunately, advance emergency preparations, early warnings to residents, less rainfall than forecast, and uninterrupted power supply to Wilton center eased townwide state of emergency conditions. No deaths or significant injuries were reported and luckily, the Norwalk River did not flood.

However, due to a variety of storm emergencies over a 10-day period, over 3,100 calls were handled by Wilton’s central dispatch, which included 489 “911” calls for assistance. In brief, this storm was a “killer” that temporarily overloaded town, state and utility company resources!

Several months before Hurricane Sandy struck, town officials conducted two practice emergency drills, which included officially activating our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), reviewing shelter plans and briefing CERT volunteers. When Sandy hit us, improved communications equipment, visual displays and CL&P participation in the practice drills paid off. Code Red Emergency messages urging residents to prepare for a damaging storm started on Friday, Oct. 26, three days prior to the storm’s major impact. To keep citizens informed, emergency Code Red broadcasts, town website updates, email blasts, and Facebook/Twitter posts, plus posted emergency messages at strategic locations throughout the town, continued on a twice-daily basis for the duration of the emergency.

Due to massive damage concentrated in the Weston, Wilton, New Canaan area, initial recovery lagged other areas of the state. As it took two to three days to make safe and clear roads, which is a critical first priority, serious power restoration did not start until the third day after the storm. As indicated before, CL&P’s outage map is primarily an indication of damage in the community. As circuits are restored, CL&P manually adjusts the outages map, and power recovery progress often lags actual field results due to late crew chief reports and other issues. CL&P storm room officials allocate crews’ resources based primarily on damage assessments, population density and availability of crews’ resources. Their goal is to restore power to communities on a relatively equal basis — not favoring one community at the expense of another. Be assured, Wilton’s power issues were intensely communicated and amplified in teleconference calls with the governor and CL&P senior management officials.

To manage this major emergency, town officials manned the EOC for 10 days and public safety employees worked around the clock to respond to emergency calls, open up roads and provide assistance to citizens in need across the town. Storm-related overtime, to date, totals approximately $135,000. Relatively minor damage to town and school buildings is currently being estimated for insurance claim purposes along with other storm-related costs. As Connecticut was declared a federal disaster area, the town has diligently tracked all eligible storm-related costs to assure 75% minimum reimbursement from FEMA.

While CL&P made improvements in their storm response from 2011 in some areas, town officials feel that no improvement has been made to the utility’s customer service communications. Citizens are unable to get accurate information or estimates by area or street regarding power restoration. Recorded messages are inadequate and lack the information citizens want. And when a live operator is able to be reached, the operators are also unable to help and in some cases, inappropriately referred citizens to their community town halls! CL&P has the prime responsibility to return power to their customers and to communicate estimated restoration times. Cablevision and telephone companies have a similar responsibility. However, every citizen who loses service also has a priority responsibility to immediately advise their service provider. Even if your whole neighborhood is out, it is essential to individually advise the utility companies.

Town officials have scheduled a follow-up meeting with CL&P managers to address areas that need improvement, especially communications to their customers and also to EOC officials who labored daily to extract specific activity and recovery information to be able to relay this information to the community.

While Wilton’s EOC functioned smoothly, the town’s practice is to review all operational procedures and communication flows after each storm, as storm-related emergency management is a never-ending process of improvement.

In brief, Hurricane Sandy delivered an historic level of damage to Wilton’s power system, but because town departments and residents were better prepared for this major storm, the recovery and cleanup phase was able to be managed more effectively. Lastly, be assured more severe storms will come in the future! Therefore, the time to prepare is now! Replenish emergency supplies and follow other emergency preparation suggestions, as outlined on the town website.

While many residents and their families suffered many days without power, 99% of our citizens were cooperative and understanding. Everybody helped each other and offers of assistance came quickly from the Family Y, Trackside, the library, and from many churches and other organizations, for which we are most grateful. Thanks again, Wilton!