United Illuminating Makes Changes Five Years After Irene

Five years ago, on August 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene made landfall in Connecticut.

The storm’s surge pushed flood waters a half mile inland. Now, “for sale” signs welcome you along the sandy stretch of Fairfield Beach Road.

“Some of the people moved out after that because of the experience,” explained resident Bob Frank.

“A lot of the people can’t afford to raise their homes, which is required,” added Ed Grella of the new insurance requirements for homes close to the Long Island Sound to be raised on stilts or higher ground.

The storm caused two deaths and $200-million in damage. It also put the focus on the response utility companies made during the storm.

“We did not necessarily have the technology and tools to streamline information from our field crews in through our control center, and out to our customer and that has been our focus the last three to four years,” said the Vice President of Electric Systems Operations for United Illuminating, Joe Thomas.

Thomas said half of UI’s customers lost power after Irene which took an average of eight days to restore. In total, 750-thousand homes and businesses lost power across Connecticut at the height of the storm.

“Ninety-percent of the outages that occur during these storms are caused by trees falling into the roads and taking down our wires,” said United Illuminating Director of Operations Maintenance Jim Cole.

Three of United Illuminating’s substations shut down during Tropical Storm Irene after taking on water.

“If the salt water managed to get into the infrastructure it would result in catastrophic damage,” explained Thomas.

Now, barriers are in place until the substations can be moved to higher ground. The $150-million project is expected to be completed in 2020.

UI says the storm was also a wake-up call about their customers’ expectations.

“What we found after Irene is that customers have a pretty low threshold for being out of service in today’s digital world,” explained United Illuminating’s Emergency Preparedness Manager, Mark Biron.

Back on Fairfield Beach new homes are being hoisted on stilts, but you don’t have to look hard to see the damage left behind by a one-two punch from Mother Nature. First Irene, then Sandy.

“Everyone thought you were immune to it. Then two came right after another,” explained Frank.

Those who live here know it’s not if but when another storm will come ashore, battering their beachfront properties, making them hard to sell.

"The value of the houses have gone down and people have invested a lot of money and maybe some people just don't want to take losses,” said Dr. Shashi Chaddha.

United Illuminating is now encouraging its customers to sign up for text alerts for real time information about power restoration, something that wasn’t available during Tropical Storm Irene.

By texting REG (734) to the number 839884, UI says customers will no longer be left in the dark about outages. That could be particularly important this year, as researchers predict an active hurricane season.

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