Northeast Utilities Wasn’t Prepared for October Snow Storm

Northeast Utilities (NU) failed to adequately prepare for a record October snowfall that cut electricity to 70 percent of its Connecticut customers and it lacked executive leadership during power restoration, according to an independent study.

Connecticut Light & Power, Northeast Utilities’ subsidiary, “was not prepared for an event of this size,” Witt Associates LLC said in a report commissioned by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat. The assessment of Northeast Utilities and UIL Holdings Corp. (UIL)’s responses to the storm was issued today.

More than 3 million homes and businesses in the Northeast lost power after snow toppled trees onto power lines. About 861,000 Connecticut customers were left in the dark and some went without electricity for more than a week as CL&P struggled to respond to the largest power failure in its history.

“The extent to which they were unprepared is troubling,” Malloy said of CL&P today at a press conference in Hartford, Connecticut. Malloy promised tighter storm preparation rules and better coordination by public agencies.

Neither Connecticut Light & Power nor other utilities in the region requested crews from other states “until the snow started to fall,” Charles Fisher, a Witt vice president, testified today before a panel investing the response.

Heavy Snowfall

Power lines might have been repaired faster had utilities sought help during an Oct. 28 conference call of the Northeast Mutual Assistance Group, an organization of utilities in the U.S. and Canada. None of the utilities on the call asked for help, when weather forecasters at the time were expecting snowfall sufficiently heavy to snap limbs, Fisher said.

The state panel formed by Malloy is investigating the utilities’ responses to the Oct. 29 snowstorm and to Tropical Storm Irene, which struck in late August. State Attorney General George Jepsen asked regulators to review CL&P’s response.

“There are several areas of opportunity identified within the report and we have already started addressing some of them,” Charles Shivery, chairman and chief executive officer of Northeast Utilities, said in a statement. “We are working quickly to incorporate this feedback into our emergency response plan.”

CL&P had prepared for about 100,000 customers to lose power, the report said. It wasn’t prepared to manage the number of workers necessary for a major storm, the report said. Plans should accommodate a 10-fold increase in field staff after storms, Fisher said today.

Insufficient Boots

“They failed to have enough boots on the ground when their worst-case scenario was compounded by a factor of eight,” Malloy said.

CL&P misled customers by underestimating how many days it would take to restore power, the report said. The company announced that 99 percent of customers would have power back by Nov. 6 “even though they appeared to know” that Nov. 9 was more probable, the report said.

The Nov. 6 target was an internal goal aimed at motivating employees, Fisher said.

In addition, the state’s largest utility “did not provide sufficient executive leadership during this restoration effort, allowing one individual to oversee the restoration effort, serve as primary liaison at the state emergency operations center and be the public spokesperson,” according to the report.

Butler Resignation

Jeffrey Butler, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, spoke on behalf of the company at storm-related press conferences. He resigned Nov. 17 because “it would be a challenge for him to continue in his current position,” Shivery said in a telephone interview at the time. More management changes may follow, he said.

Northeast Utilities asked “an awful lot” of Butler, Fisher said.

The report makes 27 recommendations, including that CL&P improve its planning procedures and communication. State and local authorities should coordinate better with utilities, Witt concluded.

Northeast Utilities announced Nov. 29 it had tripled to $30 million funds set aside for customers who lost power after the snowstorm. The company hired Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who oversaw payments to families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to administer the fund.

The company, which is based in Springfield, Massachusetts, and run from Hartford, Connecticut, is in the process of buying Boston-based Nstar.

United Illuminating

Northeast Utilities fell 1.5 percent to $34.34 at the close in New York. The shares have risen 7.7 percent this year. UIL Holdings, which has about 325,000 Connecticut customers, fell 1.6 percent to $34.21.

UIL is “comfortable” with the report’s recommendations, said Michael West, a spokesman for the New Haven, Connecticut- based company.

“We are implementing many of the things that have been discussed,” West said in a telephone interview today. United Illuminating, its utility subsidiary, filed a new emergency preparedness plan with Connecticut regulators yesterday.

UIL plans to invest $10 million to $15 million in technology during the next three years to give it quicker and more accurate information about power blackouts, he said. The company had power back to its customers on Nov. 2.

Witt Associates is the Washington-based management consultant led by James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 to 2001.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jim Polson in New York at jpolson@bloomberg.net; Julie Johnsson in Chicago at jjohnsson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.