How many legislators does it take to question utility executives?

Legislative leaders just announced four General Assembly committees are planning to schedule a joint informational hearing in the coming weeks examining the response by utility companies and others to Hurricane-turned-Tropical Storm Irene.

There are around 80 members total on these committees. Unless certain ground rules are set, I guarantee most of them – Democrat and Republican – will want to get in at least one question or statement so they can issue a press release about how they “grilled” utility executives.

The press release announcing this hearing (see below) contained quotes from no less than one dozen lawmakers.

One of them – Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn – told me by phone details, like whether only key committee members or all members will attend, are being worked out.

“We obviously want to have meaningful informational hearings that get the answers to the questions that we have,” Williams said. “We plan on inviting all the utilities, not only power companies but the phone companies, cell phone folks. We want representatives of municipalities, homeland security. A significant piece of this was the communication – the quality of it or lack thereof between municipal officials and utilities. The frustrations I heard from so many people and constituents wasn’t so much, ‘Where’s my power? I want it now!’ but ‘Can I get some reasonable answer as to when I will have power?’ The people know they’re going to be out for three days, they plan one way, as opposed to knowing they’ll be out for five days or seven days. The earlier folks know that and it can be communicated, the better.”

Williams concluded: “The idea here is not so much to just have it be a session where folks vent and point fingers, but more importantly where we can figure out what went right (and) what should be improved in the future.”

Here’s that full press release:


After Irene: General Assembly To Hold Legislative Hearing On Readiness and Response

Legislative leaders say public deserves answers – call for legislative hearing & investigation

Hartford: With power restored to the vast majority of Connecticut homes, Democratic leaders of the General Assembly says it’s now time to examine the quality and effectiveness of Connecticut’s readiness and response to Hurricane / Tropical Storm Irene.

The Energy & Technology, Public Safety, Labor and Public Employees, and Planning & Development committees will hold an informational hearing in the coming weeks to address the following issues:

    • Preparation and response by the utility companies, including United Illuminating and Connecticut Light & Power
    • Performance of telephone and telecommunications companies
    • Communication between utilities and municipal leaders
    • Effectiveness of municipal reverse 9-1-1 systems and other communication methods

“Irene was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit Connecticut,” said Senate President Donald E. Williams, Jr., “and many Connecticut residents, public workers, and companies stepped up to make a real difference. We also know that tens of thousands of families and businesses were left in the dark for many days – and now they’re looking for answers. It’s time to understand what happened and how Connecticut can be better positioned to deal with the next emergency.”

“Connecticut has an opportunity to learn from this storm, identify what was done effectively and what needs to be improved,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven / Hamden). “My constituents want to know why it took so long to get the power back on in certain areas. Probing questions need to be asked and I’m confident the legislative hearing is the appropriate venue to get answers.” 

“I am pleased that almost all Connecticut residents now have their power restored,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden). “Too many, however, suffered without power for too long. That posed more than just inconvenience for them – it jeopardized their health, safety and livelihoods. We are hearing from folks across the state that we can do better than this, and we’re looking to explore ways that we can be better prepared next time. That’s why it is appropriate at this time to convene legislative hearings.”

House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) said, “In meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano yesterday, she confirmed to me that Connecticut had the highest percentage of homes without power of all states affected by Hurricane Irene.  With such a heavy burden, to me the question remains whether our local utilities are working together to bring the necessary resources to bear throughout the state, not just within their own coverage areas.”

Comments from committee chairs are included below:

House Chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee Rep. Vicki Nardello (D-Prospect) said, “If you got your power back within a couple days you probably were very happy with the restoration effort, but for those who had to wait close to a week or more we need to understand what happened and why. Many people who had to wait the longest also depend on electricity to run their well water pumps and that can become a health issue very quickly. We are fortunate these record outages weren’t the result of a winter storm and the time is now to figure out what can be done better.”

“This hearing will help us to determine what went well and what went wrong in the aftermath of Irene. We will examine how to avoid or address outages more quickly after future disasters, and how to provide better information to electric customers left waiting in the dark,” said Senator John Fonfara (D-Hartford), Senate Chair of the Energy & Technology Committee.

“We should consider the hearing an opportunity to examine what was done right by our state during Hurricane Irene  and what we can do better,” Rep. Stephen Dargan (D-West Haven), House Chair, Public Safety and Security Committee,  said. “Testimony from local officials and local emergency responders will be very helpful for future planning.”

“First responders were called upon to mobilize and deliver public safety services without interruption hour after hour for days at a time, and this hearing will provide a welcome opportunity to assess that response,” Senator Joan V. Hartley (D-Waterbury), Senate Chair of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, said. “In terms of law enforcement, fire and rescue operations, and emergency medical response Irene presented an extraordinary sequence of events and now offers the chance to prepare for the future.”

“It is important that we assess what went right and what went wrong with the restoration efforts by the utility companies so everyone is better prepared when the next storm strikes,” said Rep. Linda Gentile (D-Ansonia and Derby), House Chair of the Legislature’s Planning & Development Committee.

“Obviously the utility issue commanded most of the attention, since people were going without power for days on end,” said Senator Cassano, who is Senate Chairman of the Planning and Development Committee. ”But there were clearly other issues, such as caring for people with disabilities or who are on oxygen or bedridden. That was extremely taxing to municipalities, and a better way has to be found to identify and care for these people during a natural disaster.”

“In every facet of the response to Irene in every corner of Connecticut manpower issues came into play,” Senator Edith G. Prague (D-Columbia), Senate Chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said. “Going forward we have to ensure there will be adequate response capabilities in public safety personnel and for utilities restoration and infrastructure repair, just to name a few.”

“All aspects of our state’s response to the storm need to be examined,” Rep. Zeke Zalaski (D-Southington), House Chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said. “Our citizens need to know more about CL&P’s less than stellar response since they have already warned us about raising our rates.”

Brian Lockhart