[OPINION] Disaster Planning Is Imperative

Larry Perlstein is a long-time Westport resident, and Staples High School graduate. He cares full-time for his wife and 12-year-old daughter, and authors a blog for caregivers

This is a rant. I hope this does not provoke ire. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, any government or any specific company. But I am in the midst of unprecedented craziness between the pandemic, the storm, the heat wave, etc. My emotions are running wild, so please hear me out — and be civil.

Can we all agree that disaster planning in general is a disaster? Having lived in Westport or nearby since 1970 (minus 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area), I notice we recover quickly after a storm only when we are lucky — not because we were prepared.

For example, I live near a road that is a nightmare after any significant storm. Isaias brought down 5 or 6 large trees. Eversource regularly trims the trees, and owners of the multi-million-dollar houses take good care of their properties. But it’s to no avail. The road gets battered. There’s no taming Mother Nature, and no guessing what damage might occur.

Days after Isaias, Avery Place remained blocked by downed wires and limbs. (Photo/Lauri Weiser)

After each storm we hear the same complaints, and go through the same discussions: The forecast was wrong. The utilities were slow to respond. The governor is angry at the utilities. The town was hardest hit and angry at the utilities. The people living on private roads (60% of Westport) don’t get enough attention from the town. Utility, cable and phone support lines are overloaded or non-existent. People ignore warnings to avoid downed lines. And so on.

In my case, 3 trees fell. They took down all my power, cable and phone lines, and blocked my driveway. I called the police non-emergency number 2 days after the storm, alerting them that wires were down across my road, and that my family (including my disabled wife and 12-year-old daughter) were essentially trapped in the house.

Larry Perlstein and his wife Jacquie.

The response was disheartening. The officer said it wasn’t worth putting tape across the road because people tear it down or drive over it, and they did not have any lists of contractors or individuals who might be able to cut us out. Basically, it is what it is.

Thankfully I had a generator and gas. A neighbor helped me find a great tree company. After 2 days, we extricated oruselves.

I suggest that we stop thinking we can develop grand disaster plans, and instead focus on practical strategies that will improve our resilience.

Here’s a list of services that the state and town might provide that would be useful after a storm. I’m sure some of these things exist, and some might be impossible. But we should use this as a starting point:

  • Police and fire departments should have access to a list of tree and electrical contractors that can be provided to homeowners. The list should include those willing to donate services for low-income households.
  • Town emergency messages should include areas/roads to avoid, gas stations and grocery stores that are open, cell services that are impacted, and outage reporting numbers for Eversource, Optimum, Frontier, etc.
  • The state should provide low-interest loans or grants to acquire and install generators for families with disabled or elderly members, and critical facilities and businesses such as senior centers, gas stations and grocery markets.
  • The state should offer emergency relief for homeowners with significant tree damage. Most homeowner insurance plans offer only $500 for a tree that might cost $2500+ to take down. California offers earthquake insurance. Why can’t Connecticut have tree damage insurance?

Tree damage from storms is an ongoing concern. (Photo/C. Swan)

  • The town should have backup generator capability for critical cell towers. Thank god for my good old Frontier copper landline that kept working even with my lines down.
  • The state should regulate Altice’s internet business to ensure accelerated investment in maintaining/upgrading existing infrastructure, and monitor their storm response. I never did find a way to report an outage.
  • Local radio stations such as WICC, WEBE, and WEZN should be enlisted to provide road closure and other emergency information, and someone should figure out what the “Emergency Alert System” can actually be used for. I continued to hear tests on my battery powered radio, but no actual alerts.
  • The town’s Department of Human Services should be sufficiently staffed (with volunteers if necessary) to handle incoming requests for support, and proactive outreach to the voluntary disability registry. Volunteer groups that provided amazing support during the early days of the pandemic should be coordinated by this office to supply gas, food, water, etc., to households unable to do it themselves.

Many more things can be done, but I’ve tried to keep the list reasonable. Having watched and participated in the volunteer efforts that sprang up after the start of the pandemic, I’m certain that with a little centralized organization and some political will on behalf of the town and state, we can make recovery from storms more palatable.

One last note: While our state and local representatives rake Eversource over the coals (again), I urge everyone to remember that the workers who fix our problems have likely left their own families in the middle of their own problems. These folks are our current heroes. I can’t wait to hug one of those heroes (from a distance) when my power gets restored.

A crew from Canada connects Westport to the world. (Photo/Doerte Inett)

45 responses to “[OPINION] Disaster Planning Is Imperative

  1. Sheila Flinn

    I nominate Larry to be the new Disaster Czar of Westport! I’m confident he would get it down!

    • Wow!!!
      Larry, that was the most intelligent, comprehensive, practical solution I’ve heard.
      With all you’re dealing with, however did you find the time & energy to write this?
      PLEASE send this to the entire Ct govt and all of Westports officials.

      Well done….and ThankYou!

  2. Larry, thank you for this fantastic piece. You truly hit every point and hopefully the Local administration takes some action.
    As consolation for you, not that it should be this way, I am on Cross Hwy, major road in Westport I would argue, and we didn’t get our power back until Tuesday late afternoon. 8 full days after the storm.
    The town leadership should stop blaming Eversource and truly look into our own processes, that lack any planning whatsoever.
    Hope you are back and running and again thank you for such thoughtful piece.

  3. Susan Iseman

    Well said, Larry. I’m sorry you and your family experienced such difficulty. Here’s my observation: Stop signs were not installed at many intersections on Post Road and elsewhere during the outage. Many motorists were not heeding the “4 way stop” rules- some speeding through major intersections without even slowing down. (These folks probably run through red lights and stop signs regularly, I imagine.) It’s amazing there were no accidents. Or maybe there were. Finally, traffic officers were stationed at the intersection of Post Road and Route 33- which is a horror show even when power is on. I know, there are aggressive, rule breaking drivers every day, but having a few more stop/warning signs in key spots would have made it a little less frightening for those who needed to be on the road.

  4. Rosalie J. Wolf

    VERY constructive list.

    Rosalie J. Wolf

  5. Eleanor Wilson

    I thought this a very balanced and useful article. It is hard to get anyone to focus on preparing for rare events-I hope we can make some of these ideas real

  6. Stacie Curran

    Thank you Larry – How about: Bury the Power lines, Cable lines, etc., pretty sure that’s why Main street stayed powerful.

  7. Time to bury the wires underground

    • And when they get flooded? NYC was still replacing underground power infrastructure from Sandy damage as recent as 2-3 years ago…

      • I agree with Josh we have a very high water table regardless of being by the shoreline. It’s a natural watershed.
        The power company would constantly be digging up to fix everything.
        Norwalk had put a ton of transformers underground all over the city. They had to put them top side in the late ’90s. They were constantly digging or going into manholes tieing up traffic, fixing circuits and rewiring the underground transformers.
        It was more trouble than it was worth.

  8. Mary Moltumyr

    Well said and thoughtful essay. You would be excellent in local government.

  9. Jon Rosenoer

    I agree that resiliency and continuity planning are weak and overlook major areas. ConEd in NY is reimbursing customers for spoiled food caused by the outage. https://www.coned.com/-/media/files/coned/documents/services-outages/claim-form/residential/residential_claim_form-2017_en.pdf?la=en
    Why isn’t Eversource required to do this? If there is no reimbursement, what is the incentive for them to move resources to the area (other than our local and state politicians raising the pressure. thanks for that)? Further, Internet service is essential. Optimum, which is a cable monopoly in town, did not provide an outage map and simply refused to answer the phone. (It also refuses to cancel service). As for emergency services, I’m still shook from being berated by the Westport 911 operator who said notifying them of downed power lines in the middle of Cross Highway is not an emergency to be calling about.

  10. Ellen Greenberg

    Does the town have an emergency management coordinator? If not we need one. They need to address many of the issues mentioned and more.
    For me, Dan Woog shown as the go to source of information. That isn’t Dan’s job He shouldn’t have to do this. The town should have had a much more robust website that included things like a map of closed roads, links to power and phone outages, lists of open retailers for food and gas. Yes my internet service was down and my cell very weak but to be able to drive to the Post Road once a day and get Information would have been fabulous. The linemen were great, but Eversource could have done better. Westport’s EMTs, Fire and police worked overtime but the town of Westport could have done better and should have a coordinator and plan for next time.
    (I know it can be done better. My father-in-law just retired as the emergency management coordinator for a shore town in NJ wher he wrote a Post Irene report and plan that was distributed to many shore towns.)

    • Amy Schneider

      The fire chief, Chief Yost, is the Director of Emergency Management. He meets with all the department heads in emergencies.
      I also think cell service providers should have generators that last days (as NYC hss) instead of hours.

      • Wendy Cusick

        Amy’s right.
        It’s Fire Chief Yost.
        I learned that a couple years ago after one of the big storms. (Winter, maybe?)

  11. Susan Charlton Wallace

    Thank you, Larry. This is a constructive rant – my kind of rant. I am a native of Westport, but now live in Madison. I am forwarding your information to local officials here. Stay well.

  12. Michael Isaacs

    “The people living on private roads (60% of Westport) don’t get enough attention from the town.”

    That cannot be correct, can it? 60% of Westporters live on private roads? Should be 6% right?

    • 60% is a little high but not by much.

    • Ernie Lorimer

      From the town web site: “There are 332 roads in Westport designated as town roads with a total combined length of approximately 123 miles. There are 460 “private” roads totaling approximately 66 miles,”

      Doesn’t answer the # of people question, but it sounds like Cathy is right.

  13. Great, constructive ideas, most of which should have been implemented already. Why doesn’t the town have a text blast set up to every business — text back if/when you’re open, and then publish an up-to-date list. The fact is that as storms get worse and more frequent, a heavily wooded town like Westport is going to suffer a lot of damage. The only answer is to bury the infrastructure underground, which is expensive but ultimately worth it

  14. Ernie Lorimer

    Very useful recap. Not all of the wheel has to be reinvented. The very quick Stafford Act declaration means that FEMA resources are in play for those that meet the eligibility criteria. There is a lot of information on the State DEMHS website, although I found it difficult to sift through. Everyone in the Compo Beach and Saugatuck Shores area should look at the SLOSH map.

    Even for small storms like this.widespread power outages seem to mean a 7 to 10 day recovery period, since they seem to rely on crews being sourced from other utilities. We went fairly rapidly from 200 crews in the state to 500 crews, and then to 1500 crews but I can see that takes a certain amount of irreducible time, and I don’t think anyone wants to pay for 1500 crews to be on site to be called on every few years. I’m interested in how the outage prediction model being worked on by UConn and Eversource might reduce that. It is harrowing to think of the larger events, like the 1938 hurricane and the 1955 floods, occurring now, but I think the working assumption is that a Cat 3 hurricane would bring down 77% of the state’s trees and block all –all– roads, and months would be required.

    Still, the Altice wired model for internet is woefully inadequate in these circumstances, on every level. Any municipal or personal communication plan based on the internet is suspect, including facebook and twitter. As with Irene and Sandy, the only passable cell-based communications seemed to be SMS and voice.

  15. The town/Emergency Management does have two very large generators at Police HQ (one is currently at the Imperial lot for use for concerts) that I could imagine could be used to help power cell towers or other communication equipment. I’m not sure what their official purpose is, but as far as I saw they were unused during this storm. That feels like there’s room there to better purpose those.

    In terms of the comment about the stop signs, I believe that every stop sign that Police owned was in use during the storm, including some in use to replace stop signs that had blown over at normal 4-way stops. I do think that purchasing more or something like that would be good, as one of the largest problems I saw during this storm was that with the traffic lights out and no street lights it was often hard to see a nonfunctional traffic light and where to stop in the first place, which I imagine was more difficult for out of town drivers who did not know the roads in the first place. Having some sort of indicator, like a battery/solar powered flashing red light like DOT uses on construction signs, would have been helpful at intersections as well as hard to see/non-reflective road obstructions.

  16. I find it confounding that a very wealthy town – where the police department proudly drives around in a Tesla and wanted to use a drone to spy on private parties purportedly to enforce social distancing – is unable to provide basic safety following a storm. I’d suggest they turn in the big boy toys and use the money to buy some extra stop signs, as a first step. Although that should not be necessary with a $9 million annual budget.

    And for all blaming Eversource entirely for lack of tree maintenance: the town pays a tree warden nearly $100k a year to maintain trees in the town right of way – i.e., along the street (other than state roads), where many power lines and poles are located. And the tree warden doesn’t actually remove the trees for that $100k – the town then pays contractors to do it. The primary job of the tree warden is simply identifying trees for removal to protect public safety.

    This is not to be uniformly critical of the town. But we should be holding local officials accountable for their share. Lambasting Eversource is great, but we’ll all be paying for additional maintenance in rate hikes, when instead we could make sure that the funds we are already spending on a local level are spent prudently. Given all that’s happening in the world, it’s a particularly great time to revisit the police budget to ensure it’s being spent in the interest of public safety.

  17. Arline Gertzoff

    Thank you Larry for your constructive rant
    I would add we have made great advances in all fields but still using 19th century electric and telephone polls Underground sounds very appealing but it would cost zillions and just learned above ground and underground systems cannot in general be combined .On to tackle my property damages and the insurance company.

  18. Time to under ground utilities like they do in other civilized parts of the world.
    And don’t just trim those dangerous trees near utility wires. Take them out.

  19. Larry this “rant” is much needed. I am so sorry that you and your family have an extra layer of concern when storms ramp up. It shouldn’t have to be that way. I feel it’s worth a deep dive exploration for underground cables. The conversation seems to stop where most do…. at the financial aspect. People don’t want their mill rates to increase. And who does? But these storms are only going to get worse. And yes – it would take a long time to implement. But better to start having very real conversations about it now than to experience our own version of The Wizard of Oz every season. And we haven’t even officially gotten into Hurricane Season yet. Down trees, No Power, No Internet…. oh my!

  20. Larry Perlstein

    Thank you all for the supportive comments! Just as an update : We got power back on Tuesday at 11:45 PM but someone physically cut our downed but working cable and phone lines. I don’t know if it was a contractor or an individual just trying to clear the road. Restoration of those services is not expected until Friday night.
    Special thanks to Melissa Katz Kane and Jonathon Steinberg for supporting families with critical needs during this crisis.

    Last, I’d like to see our town leaders hold a virtual public hearing or two so we can all air our concerns and collect ideas.

  21. A well thought out, practical list of ideas, thank you! Any plans to send this to the Gov & elected officials statewide?

  22. Phillip Perri

    As others have said the resolution is beyond obvious….bury the utility lines under ground as should have been required in the first place. Does anyone believe the future holds fewer storms or other events that will caused the same damage? Does anyone actually believe anyone can predict how a living tree will react to storms, especially the shallow rooted Tulip trees we all suffer with? It’s easy to place blame on people that are just doing the best they can in unpredictable situations, especially those with political agendas who are only trying to deflect the spotlight so it doesn’t land on their desks. How about coming to the table with solutions? Perhaps the Town can force the utility companies to bury all utility lines underground and float municipal bonds to help pay the cost? In these days of 0% interest perhaps this is an avenue. Perhaps a special assessment to pay for burying the lines would be a strategy to investigate? I would certainly consider paying to make this happen and chalk it up to a quality of life investment. In addition, buried utilities would probably be a very welcomed selling feature for a house these days, adding to its market value. A win-win. This is how neighborhoods get sewers installed, for example. If the Town analyzed the cost of utility outages, both hard and soft costs that would be saved going forward perhaps an investment by the Town would be prudent. Perhaps a bit of all these funding avenues is the way to go? What say you, Mr. First Selectman? I know you’re an avid 06880 reader. Isn’t it time to look into a positive, long term solution?

  23. Mark Bachmann

    This is an excellent post. There’s something to be said for “manageable” disasters like our current one to wake us all up to the need for pragmatic planning against something in the future that could be much worse.

    The plea for civility is constructive too.

    Thank you, Mr. Perlstein!

  24. Ernie Lorimer

    Two things. First, my understanding is that undergrounding is extremely expensive and while it has obvious advantages for downed trees, it is highly vulnerable to wet weather events, heat and road salt and extremely expensive to identify problems and repair them. By “extremely expensive” estimates are in the range of 7 times the cost to install. In Massachusetts, after Sandy, it was estimated electric rates would go up an average of $40 to $100 a month, before considering the cost of a homeowner making their own undergrounding connection to the distribution system. I can’t plant a bush without hitting rock. It might be less expensive in the Beach area but mean more frequent extended outages.

    Second, it seems to me the Eversource “tree trimming” work is of marginal utility here (no pun intended). The Isaias outages are not in the main from falling limbs but whole trees. That’s for the tree warden.

  25. The utilities and telcos are getting away with not doing things they used to do as a normal course of business. When Cablevision owned Optimum, they did a decent job maintaining the battery backups to keep their networks going for a few hours after a power outage, and then would place generators at key locations to keep the power going. Cell towers historically have had backup power generators automatically switch on after a power outage. How come Altice is getting away with not maintaining their infrastructure as well as Cablevision did? How come the cellular companies are getting away with not having permanently installed backup power at the cell towers? People use Optimum voice and cell phones as their means of communication and to call for help. Further, many critical businesses rely on Optimum for data connectivity and cell towers for data/voice communications, including doctor that are on call, first responders, etc. It is absolutely ridiculous that there aren’t regulations and huge fines for these companies who make a TON of profits, to keep up their infrastructure, and availability during a crisis. Can you imagine if someone had a health emergency or there was another disaster simultaneous to the power outage, people wouldn’t be able to call for help or be alerted? I also think its ridiculous that cell providers can get away with selling cellular plans to folks in town yet their signals don’t reach (or reach reliability) large areas of town. Its 2020 and none of this should be things we have to worry about! But who is going to hold these companies accountable? The customers? The government?

  26. I hope this has been sent to First selectman Jim Marpe. And all Westport state representatives. And all town officials who weigh in when disaster strikes.

  27. A few thoughts…
    1. We have a radio station that broadcasts information during this, previous, and presumably future emergency events. It is called WWPT. Since it is “owned” by the town we can use it for this purpose without having to cajole private businesses in the form of commercial radio stations. During non-Emergency situations it broadcasts an entertaining mix of programming.

    2. Sign up for the Town’s existing broadcast messages on Nixle.com. You can get them via text message, email, or both. Yes, this doesn’t help if there is no cell service, But between these and the radio, you should be able to get all essential information.

    3. As I understand it, the current regulations for new developments require utility services to be buried. This of course does not apply to existing houses, or a new house on existing roads. Secondly, in the spirit of the points raised by Ernie Lorimer, burying the wire retroactively would not only be very expensive, and have maintenance issues all its own, the disruption to traffic and road access is likely to stir up as much, if not more, community ire than the current storm issues. Imagine how upset people would be over the months it would take to dig a trench and bury the wires the length of North Avenue.

    4. I think the biggest failure during this current emergency was a seeming lack of communication from the utility service providers. I fully understand it is very difficult for them to say “This persons power will be back by this exact time”, but there has to be something better than “Oh, we should have it all working in a week or so”. Perhaps some system that you can at least find out where you are on the list? This would at least allow people to better plan what they are going to do next. As for Optimum, the message you got was a very snotty seeming one that said in essence, “We know it is broke, we will fix it when we can.” Again, something more informative would be appreciated.

    5. Develop a relationship with service providers like tree people, electricians, etc, now, not at the height of an emergency. You are more likely to get a more favorable response if you have an existing relationship than if you call up in a screaming panic as the storm crashes down around you.

    6. We need to follow up on what has happened here, rather than let it slip to the wayside now that the crisis has past. Iasias, Sandy, Irene, all had power outages of a week or more. I have to believe over the course of a decade we have learned something to mitigate the impact of these storms.

    • Larry Perlstein

      Hi. Just wanted to give you my perspective on a few of your comments. I was first general manager of WWPT-FM and I vividly remember having my dad drive me to the station during a really bad snow storm and trying to broadcast emergency information only to find out that the antenna was frozen and the signal want getting out. Commercial stations want listeners and emergency information drives people to listen plus you get the benfit of a wider area perspective. I’m closer to Wilton and Weston than I am to downtown so it’s helpful to know how those towns are doing.

      The problem with the communications from the town wasn’t that I wasn’t getting then but that they were not helpful. I wanted road closure info, when cell service would be restored, what has stations were open, etc.

      I did have a reliable electrician and tree guy who were the 1st two people I called. They tried to respond but couldn’t find a path to my house and since I was trapped I couldn’t help them. Amazingly, both UPS and the USPS made to the house on Wednesday. Thankfully my neighbor found a route out and a new tree company.

      • Larry Perlstein

        Sorry for the typos. Still no internet so this much writing on my phone is problematic.

        My WWPT story was meant to be a funny anecdote not to suggest that it isn’t a useful town resource.

        Obviously I meant gas stations not has stations.

      • Jacques Voris

        I can see the value is having a backup plan in case of unexpected issues with the main resources, such as the antenna freezing. It is always good to plan for the worst case, and then the even worse case.

        I can see your point about road closures, etc. but don’t see it being practical. The list would be so long as to be overwhelming during the initial phases. During this storm we had blockages on nearly 300 roads. You could in theory limit it to “major through streets”, but that gets into making judgments as to what is a “major street”. You could of course put it on a website, but then we are back to the no power/Internet issues.

        As for the tree guy, I was trying to speak in more general terms in response to the suggestion of the Town maintaining a list.

        I do hope we all take this discourse as a thoughtful discussion of what can be down better so the next storm will have less of an impact than the last one.

  28. I remember a power company exec. telling me years ago that the industry joke is, “There is nothing wrong with our power lines. They work great. The issue is when when of YOUR trees hits OUR lines that there is a problem”. For aesthetic reasons I always thought it better to bury the lines. I’ve also been told that it would be cheaper for the power company to buy everyone a top of the line generator than to bury existing lines.

  29. Patricia Blaufuss

    Thank you for your comprehensive post, Larry. Is there a town map of road closures for emergency vehicles? A tree and crushed car blocked vehicle access beyond #13 Charcoal Hill Rd. on Aug. 4. Fire, police, and EMS visited the scene at the time of the incident and put up barricade tape. Yet, until the damage was cleared on Aug. 9, nearly every day I saw a fire truck coming up Charcoal Hill Rd. only to turn around at the barricade. I assume the fire truck found an alternative access via Greenbrier Rd. – but critical time would have been saved by knowledge of the road closure in advance.

  30. Thank you Larry for your constructive rant. There are lots of very good points raised by the concerned customers in this blog. My only prayer is that our Town management take very seriously the requirement for an independent inquiry. The inquiry should not be led by Eversource, the Town departments, or local politicians. We do not need defensive behavior. This is a time for us all to look into the mirror and say, “what did I do wrong, what did the providers collectively do wrong, and what are the cost effective solutions to make the hardship caused by storms shorter and sweeter”. The participants in the independent inquiry must certainly include customers and front line workers. It cannot be a self serving investigation by senior management.The front liners have the knowledge and a raft of simple suggestions. For example, in this particular storm clean up, I was struck by the amount of time wasted by crews waiting for approvals from the State, Town and Eversource. Just one observation. The folks on the front line have many more.
    We cannot let our errors and mistakes be repeated next time. We have to cease bashing Eversource, since it serves no constructive purpose. Sure Eversource made many mistakes, but we are all in this together. Let’s learn together.

  31. David Baxter

    Undergrounding is the obvious answer. Pricey, oh yes at this stage but look at the electrical infrastructure here. Looks like popsicle sticks with paperclips and oh do the “environmentalists” love the trees which get tangled up and defeat the Thomas Edison era power lines. Antique electrical transmission.

  32. Dermot Meuchner

    The tree warden sees to be on permanent holiday.

  33. Very nice. I was wondering (to myself) that since the sidewalk on North Ave was completely removed and replaced from Long Lots to Cross, would that have been the PERFECT time to bury the electric lines, at least on this lengthy stretch of main road? Or is this a naive thought?
    Secondly, wouldn’t it be nice if we could send in our power outage info to a designated town official by email/text/phone and that official would compile a master list which would get transmitted daily (maybe twice daily?) to a behind the scenes dedicated person at Eversource who could keep the town official informed of where the crews are being sent at any given day (or half day). Then all that info could be distributed to town residents so 1. we know our outage has been acknowledged and 2. we can get an idea of what’s going on and where. Lack of knowledge can be more frustrating and maddening than unpleasant information.

  34. Larry Perlstein

    My ongoing battle with Altice continues. Last night I got stood up by their technician who apparently lied in his report stating the repair was completed. Then they tried to make me wait 4 days for another appointment. I literally spent my entire Friday evening from 5 to 10 pm dealing with Altice’s horrendous customer service. I’m not going to take it anymore.

    I know many of you feel the same way. We in the CT & NY area are not alone. I found this change.org petition started in Texas and signed by a lot of people in West Virginia. I think we should add our names to the nearly 5000 who have signed and demand Altice change their customer service practices. Please sign and share.