The Associated Press January 10, 2012, 9:19AM ET

Conn. panel: Utilities need to improve storm plans

Connecticut's utilities need to fix the "toxic relationship" between labor and management and improve their worst-case planning and staffing for major storms, according to recommendations released Monday by the governor's panel, which examined responses to and preparations for Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm.

The eight-member group, known as the Two Storm Panel, said the tension between labor and management "has the potential to adversely affect public safety" and it is management's obligation to improve the situation.

"The work of the utilities' line crews ... is not what is in question. They worked hard and did admirable work," according to the 39-page report presented to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. "However, it is apparent that a toxic relationship exists between labor and management, and this relationship was on full display before the Panel."

Al Lara, spokesman for Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Connecticut Light & Power, said the utility is "aware that labor relations is something that needs to be worked on." Lara said the utility has already taken steps to boost preparedness and work better with state and municipal leaders to improve response times to disasters.

Creating new labor/management committees to improve relations at the utilities is one of the 82 recommendations included in the report. Malloy said he will announce this week how his administration plans to proceed with the suggestions. He didn't rule out possible legislation or an executive order.

The review committee was first formed in September after Irene. The governor asked the group to evaluate how the state, municipalities, social service agencies and various utilities, including electric, cable and wireless, prepared for and responded to the storm. Malloy later expanded the committee's review to include the freak October snowstorm.

The storms knocked out power to more than 800,000 customers each, with some outages lasting as long as 12 days. Total damage from both storms is estimated to be $750 million to $1 billion.

The Two Storm Panel heard from more than 100 people, including linemen and tree wardens, on ways the state can be better prepared for future storms and events.

Joe McGee, co-chairman of the panel and vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said it's likely the state will face more damaging storms because of climate change, which has created rising sea levels and powerful storm surges. According to the report, data from the Northeast Regional Climate Center indicate a major increase in precipitation over the last 40 years.

According to the report, sea levels are expected to rise about 1.5 feet by the year 2050 and from 3 to 5 feet by 2100. Meanwhile, meteorologists from the National Weather Service told the panel that Connecticut is overdue to be hit by a major hurricane.

State Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich, a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, issued a statement Monday accusing the panel of veering into politics by focusing on global warming.

"When your house is flooded you're worried about storm surges, not global warming," he said. "We need to protect our coastal towns from flooding, but that isn't about pseudo-science and global warming, it's about preparation for storm surges."

McGee said rising sea levels and a need to protect the infrastructure along Connecticut's coast and riverbanks are real issues. For example, the report mentions how stormwater surges during Irene came close to flooding water and sewage treatment facilities.

"We're not here to get engaged into a political debate, but the fact is, the sea rise is rising," McGee said. The report recommends that state agencies develop new engineering standards that better protect from the effects of extreme weather. It also calls on the Department of Construction Services to lead a working group of agencies to assess state-owned critical infrastructure in designated flood zones and hurricane surge zones.

Maj. Gen. James Skiff, the committee's co-chairman who is retired from the Air Force, said the panel also learned that the state's 169 cities and towns aren't equally prepared for such storms.

"There are other places where they just don't do enough. Even the plans are too generic," he said, adding that the panel recommended that small communities work together on emergency planning.

Other recommendations include the following:

-- The utilities should provide mobile data terminals in line trucks.

-- Utilities should be required to maintain a portion of their fleets for the use of outside contractors during an emergency.

-- State regulators should make sure telecommunications companies have vendors in place for sufficient electric generator capacity.

-- Conduct a statewide tree risk assessment and priority schedule, focusing on hazardous trees.

-- Create a hazardous tree removal fund to help homeowners pay to remove trees on private property endangering utility wires.

-- Increase state tree maintenance budget by $1 million.

-- Study the feasibility of putting more utility wires underground.

-- Develop a protocol for teams of utility line crews and local public works road-clearing crews so they can work more efficiently.

-- Require each town to hold annual emergency preparedness meetings and exercises.

-- Have the governor launch a public service campaign on the hazards of improperly using electric generators.

-- Coordinate distribution of oxygen to emergency shelters and make sure all shelters are accessible to people with disabilities.

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Online: http://www.governor.ct.gov


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