Lavielle: ‘Eversource customers felt like hostages’

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) (shown in previous file photo) spoke forcefully before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) on Monday, Aug. 24, decrying Eversource’s storm response.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) (shown in previous file photo) spoke forcefully before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) on Monday, Aug. 24, decrying Eversource’s storm response.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-143) gave the following testimony on Monday before the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) about recent rate increases by Eversource Energy Company.

Good morning. My name is Gail Lavielle, and I represent the 143rd House district, which includes most of the town of Wilton and parts of Westport and Norwalk. This part of the state was hit hard by Storm Isaias. We are used to storm damage, as the area is heavily forested. We also hoped that we might become used to being better informed each time a storm hit. But we learned we were wrong about that.

Eversource’s performance after Isaias raises questions about how it has applied its revenues to the improvements we required it to make in 2012. If your investigations lead to serious gaps in those areas, the company’s request for a rate increase must be judged unwarranted.

You will doubtless hear a great deal today about our fragile infrastructure, the encroachment of trees, the lack of sufficient Connecticut-based line staff, and underestimation of this particular storm. Those are all critical issues. Resolving them requires finding a delicate balance between making necessary improvements and limiting the costs for ratepayers.

I want to focus here on another issue, however, that does not require significant capital or operating resources to fix it. I want to call attention to how shocking it is that it was so badly neglected. It’s also an area where I have significant experience.

The issue is communication — to everybody. This whole experience felt like déjà vu, with everyone everywhere both literally and figuratively in the dark. I had a 26-year career in corporate communication, including crisis management, and for several years I was Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, worldwide, for the water utility division of Suez Environment.

There are rules for crisis communications, and Eversource broke every one of them. We need to know why, because this illustrates a clear misplacing of priorities.

This storm caused a crisis situation. Not only were power, and internet, and cable, and cell service out, but there was a heat wave, there was nowhere to escape the heat because of the pandemic, and many people were working from home. What should Eversource do in a case like this?

Hold a press conference immediately and broadcast on the radio. Say the company is sorry for the customers without power and those with property damage. Explain that damage must be fully assessed before restoration begins. Text the message to all customers.

Assign a dedicated company contact person to every town’s CEO and emergency operations center. Have them call their towns immediately to explain not to expect restoration service before assessment. Keep the lines open permanently.

If Eversource underestimated the power of the storm, say so. Say it: “We made a mistake. We are doing everything we can to fix it.”

Get a list from each town of residents who are infirm or have disabilities or medical issues. Get them immediate help.

As early as possible, let each town know which town facilities will be restored first and in what order. Then begin communicating the restoration order for neighborhoods or streets. If work is not being done at night, say so. Tell the truth.

Have human beings available to answer customer phone calls around the clock.

Hold daily press briefings and make sure they are broadcast on radio. Send reasonable restoration estimates to towns and customers promptly.

Decide on a policy for credit and tell customers what it is quickly.

Above all, do not hide the company’s CEO. His absence during the outage was shocking. It remains unexplained.

There’s more, but the upshot is clear. Eversource did none of these things, and as a result, Eversource customers felt like hostages. Mistakes happen, incompetence happens. If people hear the truth, at least they feel respected. But this time they heard nothing. There was nowhere to turn. No one took responsibility. This is not customer service. It’s customer abuse.

Clearly, Eversource management doesn’t care what customers think of the company. After all, there’s no competition. And here we are before you today — you who constitute the most important institution standing between those customers and Eversource.

On behalf of my constituents, I ask you, please be accountable. Please take the responsibility of stopping this company’s unacceptable behavior toward those who pay to keep it alive. If you can’t find a way to do that, we must question your oversight role as well.

I was pleased to read in the press this morning that you are questioning it yourselves. Ms. Gillett said that currently PURA functions like a court, ruling after the fact, and that its role should be more preventive and preemptive. I agree, and I will support any legislative initiative that will help make that happen.

Thank you for your attention.