Thousands still without power a week after tropical storm

A full week after Tropical Storm Isaias hit the Northeast, tens of thousands of people were still waiting in Connecticut and New York Tuesday for their lights to come back as public officials stepped up criticism of the region's electric utilities.

In Connecticut, the main electric utility, Eversource, said more than 2,500 crews were working to restore just under 27,000 customers who remained without power Tuesday afternoon, mostly in the southwestern part of the state. United Illuminating reported it had restored power to all but a few dozen customers. 

In New York, Public Service Enterprise Group Long Island still had some 26,000 customers out at midday and Con Edison reported about 11,000 customers out, mostly in New York City's northern suburbs.

The Aug. 4 storm and its high winds brought down trees across the region. At its peak, more than 2 million homes and businesses in the region lost power, including more than 800,000 Eversource customers and 300,000 Con Edison customers.

Despite the lengthy restoration times, Eversource insists it was properly prepared.

"We had people and equipment ready to go based on the best information at the time," said spokesman Mitch Gross. "Storms change track, change strength and that was exactly what happened with Isaias."

Gross said despite spending tens of millions of dollars on tree trimming in recent years, the company could not prevent "hazard trees," weakened by several years of drought and insect infestations, from coming down on power lines in the high winds.

Plans were put in place following two major storms in 2011 that were supposed to mitigate power-outage events. Those included pre-positioning line crews and having utility companies work with town liaisons to best direct restoration efforts.

But municipal leaders said they could not get hold of Eversource immediately after the storm and some did not see a utility truck for days.

Jody Angell, of West Hartford, said despite living in a large, densly-populated suburb, her power was not restored until Monday. The 48-year-old said that meant losing food in the refrigerator, and losing productivity. She and her husband are both working at home during the pandemic. They couldn't do their jobs and her daughter couldn't attend online classes for summer school, she said. 

"They knew for a week that the storm was coming," she said. "So with a week, do you not have line workers on call?"

The leaders of the Connecticut Legislature's Energy and Technology Committee said Tuesday they want answers to similar questions. They are planning hearings to cover the "storm management response, delivery charges, initiatives to improve the grid, and investments made in linemen." 

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong called on the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which oversees the utilities, to hold a trial-like "contested case" hearing at which the state could question Eversource and UI executives.

Tong and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who met with Eversource CEO James Judge on Monday, also called for the company to give refunds or rebates to customers.

"He declined to commit to such action," Blumenthal said. "In addition to money back to consumers and businesses for their losses, I also told him that there must be leadership changes, including his resignation."

In New York, the large number of outages and complaints of poor communication with customers led New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo to directed the state Department of Public Service to investigate several utilities including PSEG.

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Cuomo said Monday that Con Edison and PSEG have done a "lousy job," and said the utilities weren't prepared for the storm and failed to anticipate what it would take to get the power back on quickly.

"I have told them to be aggressive as the law will allow," Cuomo said. "Because New Yorkers are fed up. They're fed up and they're right, and I'm with them."

He warned the two utilities that they could face fines, penalties, restitution and the revocation of their franchise.

"And I want the utilities to know that we do not abide by the concept in New York that anything is too big to fail," Cuomo said. "Your franchise can be revoked. I am not bluffing. I don't bluff."

"I am as serious as a heart attack," Cuomo said. "PSEG, you know your franchise can be revoked. And that is a real possibility."

Gross said his utility was on track to restore 99% of customers by 11:59 p.m., but said those with property damage that would make it unsafe for crews to work could be waiting days or even weeks.

Associated Press writer Marina Villeneuve contributed to this story from Albany, New York.