Hurricane Irene is finally behind us and the time to examine how our government and public utilities fared and how they can improve operations when natural disasters occur again in the future has begun. This week the legislature began public hearings that are aimed at helping shed a spotlight on how emergency response plans turned into action and what operations can be improved.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, many of us did not realize the sheer size of damage caused. With over 50 percent of all United Illuminating customers facing long-term outage, UI faced the enormous task of assessing damage, prioritizing work orders and restoring downed power at nearly 10,000 separate locations. While we waited in frustration for updates on when power might be restored, 363 work crews (four times the number typically on the road) worked to restore 75 percent of customers in three days and 98 percent in seven days. As we languished in frustration, UI work crews and our town police, fire and public works personnel went above and beyond the call of duty and did an extraordinary job.
During the public hearing, UI also candidly addressed shortfalls in emergency response planning and communications outreach. I received dozens of calls after the storm as Fairfield and Westport neighbors sought out information about damage assessment and timetables for restoration. Our conversations and your effort to share personal stories strengthened and informed my voice as I communicated with UI the frustrations you felt.
Over the next three years UI will be putting lessons learned from Irene into an updated emergency response plan. Two changes that will occur will include:
1) Better use of technology to streamline internal communications. The trucks in the field will be upgraded with software to immediately update the systems that prioritize and direct work orders, and all of this information will be more instantly shared with call centers to keep the public abreast of ongoing activity on the streets.
2) UI realizes they can and must make enhanced customer communications a priority during blackouts. Having the call centers equipped with more relevant information will help, as will their plan to increase their use of social media, email and reverse 911 to share information directly.
What can you do? Make sure your contact information, especially a cell phone number or number that may be more likely to work during an outage, is filed with the town and your utility. Help them find you when you might be hard to find.
I hope it is many years before Fairfield and Westport experience a storm like Irene again, but with lessons learned and changes implemented we can all benefit as we strive to become more prepared and better informed.
State Rep. Kim Fawcett
Fairfield and Westport
Send letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.