Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

So, Here’s What Happened

with 5 comments

It’s Monday, November 7th, and I can say with some certainty that although I spent most of the last week sleeping–because there was virtually nothing else to do–I am completely exhausted.

For those of you who have not been following the news, or don’t know I live in Connecticut, we had a freak snow storm last week, eight inches of the stuff on October 29th.

The snow started in the late morning and fell hard and fast all day, but possibly not as hard as I thought it did. I do live in New England.  We get many absolute beauts of the things, often a couple of feet or so on and off throughout January, February and early March.

But we only got eight inches, and those eight inches somehow managed to leave almost a million people without power across the state of Connecticut.

That was on Saturday, October 29th.  My power went out at 7:19 pm.

On Tuesday, we threw out every single thing in our refrigerator.  On Wednesday, we threw out everything in both our freezers. 

My power came back on on Saturday, November 5th at 10:59 pm.

Tthat’s eight days and more than three and a half hours without light, heat, computer, hot water, or landline–and the cell phones screwed up for three days.

And, as I type this, there are still “thousands” of people without power in the state. 

I write “thousands” like that, in quotes, because I can’t seem to find a place where CL&P, the utility involved, is actually admitting to a hard number this morning. 

This may have something to do with the fact that the company spent the last week insisting that it would have 99% of its electricity-deprived customers back up and running by midnight last night night, only to hit yesterday morning with a press conference saying that, well, okay, maybe…Wednesday.

There are school districts in this state that have been closed for a week already and that did not open again today. 

There are situations in some towns that are downright frightening.  In Vernon, at least as of yesterday afternoon, there was a neighborhood that had not only been without power for more than a week, but that was impassible to anybody, including emergency vehicles.  Downed wires were stretched across the road and still live, so that it wasn’t safe to step over them or to drive vehicles over them.

All attempts to shut the electricity off altogether seemed to have failed, and there was an elderly woman who needed daily oxygen and hadn’t been able to get it.

Several of the smaller water systems have been contaminated, so that you have people living in houses without electricity who have been told to boil their water, and who can’t.

I do, now, have power–obviously, since I’m writing this–but I also have some observations:

1) This was an eight inch snowstorm.  Eight inches. That’s nothing up here in the winter.  As I said above, we routinely get a foot or more every week in the winter. 

And granted, this was unusual not only because of the time of year, but because there were leaves on the trees and that caused a lot of tree damage.

But still.  If CL&P can’t get the power back up for over a week on eight inches, what’s going to happen the first week of March, when we usually get our big nor’easter, with two feet and more? 

2) There was a time when people who were hired to be corporate public relations people had to know something about public relations.   That time seems to have passed.

Toyota and BP were bad enough, but watching CL&P’s public relations performance over the past week has been stunning.

There was, first, the constant assurances, starting the Sunday morning after the great Saturday blackout, that the company was “assessing the damage” and would have power restored no later than midnight on November 6th.

The “assessing the damage” thing sounded a lot like “we haven’t actually done anything yet, and you might as well not get your hopes up about getting power back soon, because we haven’t even started.”

This was, by the way, pretty much what was happening, so that actual operations on the ground didn’t even begin until sometime Monday. 

Never mind the fact that the projection was, in fact, insane. 

And the time it’s actually taking is even more insane.

3) As the days went by, the state government and everybody else began to get thoroughly angry, and they seem to have had a right to.

The story presently circulating in the local press is that CL&P was unable to get outside contractor crews to come in and help with the mess because it had either failed to pay many of those outside crews after they came in to help after Hurricane Irene.

Did I mention that?  There was a hurricane here–well, it was only a Tropical Storm by the time it hit the Long Island Sound, but it started as a hurricane–less than three months ago.

Some of the people now going without power for a week and a half, the ones that aren’t likely to be back up before Wednesday, also went without power for a week and a half during that.  My friends Carol and Richard lost power during Irene for eleven days, and they weren’t in the worst hit part of the state.

4) Part two of corporate PR incompetence was the constant announcement that clearing roads and downed wires was the first priority, followed by getting power back to businesses, government buildings and schools, so that residents could “access essential services.”

I have no idea who thought this would be received as good news, and the company behaving well. 

The fact was that the days during the past week have been rather nice, with temperatures in the high 50s and 60s.  The nights, on the other hand, have been brutal, the worst of them going down into the 20s.

So, with businesses up and running, what happened was that we all went to work during the nice part of the day when we could have survived pretty well without heat anyway, and then went home to cower under blankets and quilts until we could leave again in the morning.

Then there was the claim, made by company spokespeople, that the utility could not be blamed because it had no idea there would be so much snow.  You had to blame the local weather people, who hadn’t predicted it.

Not only was that lame, it was a lie–the weather people had actually been predicting more snow, and predicting it for a week.  I know.  I’m the original news junkie. 

All CL&P got for that piece of nonsense was constantly replayed clips of weather men across the local stations predicting twelve inches, fourteen inches, you name it. 

5) Half the hotels were also without power. The other half were booked up within hours, and generators were sold out across the state by Tuesday morning. 

At least one college in the Hartford area closed its doors and sent all its dorming students home for the duration.  As far as I know, they’re not up yet. 

6) Several groups of people have filed lawsuits against CL&P, and the state attorney general’s office has launched an investigation, as have the regulatory agencies. 

One of the people filing the lawsuit pointed out that he really had no other choice.  CL&P is a public utility and therefore a monopoly.  He couldn’t take his business elsewhere. 

Quite a few other people agree with my younger son, who wants something to happen that will personally affect people like Jeffrey Butler, CL&P’s COO, rather than the usual thing, which is just fining the company.

It’s a similar demand to the one made by both the Tea Party and OWS about the men at the head of the big banks and brokerage firms who got bailed out after the 2008 crash.

And it’s a policy proposal that has a lot of merit.  I had the same thought after Enron collapsed. 

You have, at this point, at least in certain segments of society, a culture of money.  In some of those segments–sports, say, or entertainment–irresponsibility just causes personal trouble and leaves the rest of us mostly alone.  In others–banks, and utilities, and like that–irresponsibility direly affects the rest of us.

For that segment, I say we change the laws so that if they blow things up, they lose, personally, their money.  If money is what they care about, then let’s go after that.

7) In spite of all this mess, many local municipalities are holding their elections tomorrow.  In pursuit of this, the roads are strewn with signs advocating for one political party or another.

One of these signs occurs at a major intersection I have to pass through on my way to and from school.  I get it right in front of me on the way home.  It’s a big, green thing with giant letters in white, and what it says is:  HAD ENOUGH YET?

It was–oh, I don’t know.  Perfect.  I hope the Indpendent Party wins a few seats on the strength of its having a prescient message for the times it is living through.

8) This is the longest period of time I’ve gone without writing since I was a teenager.  I’ve hated it.  I write even when I’m sick.

I’m glad to be back to it.

9) But first, I need to go out and replace $782.40 of food, medical supplies that aren’t safe if they’ve been too cold, and various and other sundries destroyed not by the storm, but by being without power for more than eight days.

I have a friend who says she’s getting all her receipts together and taking the money she’s out of pocket off her next few electric bills, but I know it won’t work.

That’s just going to make them shut off her power again.

Written by janeh

November 7th, 2011 at 10:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'So, Here’s What Happened'

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  1. Welcome back! Just in time for me to leave on a 2 week trip to the South Island on New Zealand.


    7 Nov 11 at 12:45 pm

  2. That’s absoluely appalling (the outage, not jd’s trip to NZ – have a great time John!). Our climate is probably worse than that of Connecticut, and we do have outages, but the worst I can remember was about 5 days, and was only that bad because at the time I was living in a rural area with a single supply line that went down at multiple points over hundreds of km of very rugged, largely uninhabited and inaccessable terrain – none of which I would expect applies to Connecticut.

    If you don’t want join the people who will sue the power company, can your regulatory bodies lean on them? I’m not sure how much teeth ours has, but they describe themselves as ‘an independent, quasi-judicial regulatory body’ and lists among its duties ‘for the regulation of the electric utilities in the province to ensure that the rates charged are just and reasonable, and that the service provided is safe and reliable’. I would assume that covers being unprepared for snow in the fall in the NE US.

    Perhaps your local politicians can set your utility on the straight and narrow, although beware if they merely promise some public hearings and a report.


    7 Nov 11 at 1:23 pm

  3. Personal responsibility sounds good to me, especially for a monopoly, but you’ll have a good deal of trouble getting courts and politicians behind it because they can all see their turn coming. Be a real shame if the COO’s address and phone number became widely known.

    Still, if the out of state people weren’t paid in three months, I’ll bet someone in CP&L thought it was a good idea to stretch the payments, nitpick the invoices and make half a percent interest by banking the money they were owed. Maybe if we’re lucky he said it in an e-mail.

    I am, however, not at all surprised that first priority on repairs went to the customers with the most clout. This is how large centralized systems work, and I wish the people advocating more centralization would keep that in mind. Of course, maybe they do, and just aren’t sharing that thought.

    I strongly suspect CP&L just refused to believe the weather predictions. I was in Lancaster PA the weekend of the storm, and everyone predicted it there, too–but I still saw some of my fellow gamers trudging through snow and slush in sneakers and windbreakers. Some, I’m told, were in shorts. Everyone knew you have snow for the March convention and not the October one. Me? Good boots and winter jacket. I didn’t believe the prediction either–but I knew what a fool I’d look like if they were right.


    7 Nov 11 at 5:07 pm

  4. Hooray for privatization!


    7 Nov 11 at 7:35 pm

  5. Glad to see you back relatively safe and sound, Jane, I hope that things come back to normal quickly.

    You raise some interesting points about accountability. Let’s see if we can celebrate your return by breaking the commentary record which, at 47, seems to belong to the “Egregious” thread. (It would have been at least 48 if my latest post on the thread had not been gobbled up in moderation.)

    As Robert says, the courts are not likely to uphold any attempts to flay company (or even government) executives for making mistakes. The knock-on implications are horrendous.

    Indeed, I tend to believe that the real underylying problem here is precisely the sort of litiginousness (?) that has developed in the US and, sadly, here in Oz, brought about by the development of contingency claims and, to a lesser extent, class actions. (I don’t know how long contingency claims have existed in the US, but it is only in the last 40 or so years that they became legal in Australia. Until then, lawyers were barred by ethical and other even stronger legal sanctions from taking cases on a contingency basis.)

    We’ve seen an awful lot of nonsense spoken here and there about executive remuneration. In theory, at least, and in practice in most instances, I think, these guys earn such big bucks precisely because they can be held accountable when they get it wrong. They might not be hanged, drawn and quartered or tarred and feathered as might have occurred in older, bolder days, but they will not exactly thrive if held responsible for what happened in CT. Sure, there are exceptions, but where is Ken Lay now or where would he have been had he survived?

    If you believe that perhaps these sorts of problems would not have occurred “if only” (fill in your “solution” of choice here), look at how a government-owned utility operates in, say, New South Wales here in Oz. Believe me, they are no better-managed than private-sector utilities, and far less competitive due to feather-bedding and other undesirable union-dominated work practices.

    But the bottom line is that people who sue for anything but reasonable damages for actual losses, will not help the situation at all. And ambulance, fire brigade and other such emergency service chasers will make it even harder for management everywhere to make rational risk assessment decisions.

    If there is evidence of bad faith malpractice, throw the book at the perpetrators. But mistakes made in good faith should not lead to swingeing penalties likely to be handed down by emotional juries anxious to punish scapegoats.


    7 Nov 11 at 8:21 pm

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