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July storm is quick… but was CL&P’s response too slow?

p1-storm_fire288wA downed power line from last week’s storm caused a brush fire on Steephill Road. —Stephan Grozinger photoA summer storm on Thursday, July 26, lasted less than an hour, but high winds and lightning strikes left their mark on Weston as hundreds of homes lost power.

Connecticut Light and Power Company’s response to Weston’s power outage also left a mark on the town, and not in a good way. Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein and members of the public have criticized the company’s response as “too slow.”

As in previous storms in 2011, Weston was one of the last towns in the state to have its power fully restored last week.

During the approximate 45-minute storm, trees and power lines were taken down by heavy winds, closing numerous roads and reducing others to one-lane traffic. Police said no injuries were reported during the storm.

Roads affected with full or partial closures were Georgetown Road at Old Mill Road, Goodhill Road at Connor’s Lane, Old Stagecoach Road, Old Farm Road at Route 57, Tobacco Road at Lord’s Highway, Oak Lane and Ledgewood Drive at Lord’s Highway East, Fanton Hill Road at Lyons Plain Road, Route 136, Old Redding Road and Codfish Lane.

There was substantial damage to a main trunk line on Kellogg Hill Road, causing approximately 400 residents to lose power. The morning following the storm, there was a brush fire on Steephill Road caused by a downed power line.

The storm did not come as a complete surprise. Early Thursday, the NOAA Storms Prediction Center (SPC) placed western Connecticut into the moderate risk category for severe thunderstorms, with a possibility of high winds, large hail, and isolated tornadoes.

According to Mitch Gross, CL&P communications director, the storm hit Weston and surrounding areas Redding, Ridgefield, Wilton and Westport especially hard before it went out to sea.

450 line and tree crews?

Ms. Weinstein met with Police Officer Joe Miceli, Weston’s director of emergency management, Thursday night to review the town’s storm plan. She received an email from Justin Beavis, account executive for CL&P, at 8:09, after the storm had passed, informing her that CL&P’s employees were prepared for the storm.

p1-storm_clp288wCL&P workers repair a main power trunk line on Kellogg Hill Road that was damaged in the storm. —Tara Tanzer photoThe email said, “We have already secured over 450 line and tree crews, including mutual aid crews, to be deployed once it is safe to do so. More crews are expected to arrive tomorrow. Our initial focus will be responding to emergencies and ensuring public safety… This is a dangerous storm. CL&P is closely monitoring weather forecasts and preparing the personnel and resources to respond quickly and appropriately in the event of power interruptions due to storm damage.”

Because of CL&P’s prolonged response last year restoring power in Weston following Tropical Storm Irene and the October nor’easter, Ms Weinstein was happy to hear CL&P was ready to “respond quickly” to this storm with 450 line and tree crews at the ready. “After this storm, we thought we only had two major incidents in town so CLP would be on top of it, but that didn’t happen,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Instead, Ms. Weinstein said CL&P crews were nowhere to be found in Weston on Friday morning when a brush fire broke out on Steephill Road, caused from a downed power wire. “There were only three crews in town when the storm ended, and none of them were here at that time,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Those crews went off duty at 5 a.m., Ms. Weinstein said, so when the brush fire was called in shortly after 6 a.m., there was no immediate response from CL&P. Ms. Weinstein said members of the Weston Volunteer Fire Department were on the scene and waiting for CL&P to arrive so they could safely put out the fire. “In an electrical fire they have to wait for CL&P to cut the power,” she said.

With no response from CL&P to the fire, Ms. Weinstein said she called the power company’s work center to reiterate that there was a fire burning in Weston. “I would have thought that once a fire had been called in there would have been a priority one response, but it took CL&P more than two hours to respond,” Ms. Weinstein said.

On the night of the storm, around 10:30, CL&P reported 735 customers in Weston were without power. By 6:30 a.m. Friday, 624 residents — 16% of the town — was without power, and at 2:30 p.m., 400 residents were still without power in Weston — nearly half of the statewide total at the time. By 7 p.m., Friday, all but five homes in Weston had their power restored.

From CL&P’s email, Ms. Weinstein said it appeared CL&P had 450 crews on call — but they weren’t activated. She also said CL&P gave out inaccurate estimates on power restoration. “I had a power outage in my house. I called to report it and was told it would be restored by 6 a.m. At 6, the message was changed to say power would be restored by 9 a.m., and then at 9, it was changed to 11, and then 2:30,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Criticism

CL&P’s response to last week’s storm seems like an instance of “déjà vu all over again” for Weston. The town was one of the last in the state to have power fully restored following Tropical Storm Irene and the October nor’easter.

Residents and officials complained at that time that CL&P was not using its crews efficiently and the public was given estimates of power restoration times that weren’t accurate.

Following those storms, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) conducted an investigation into CL&P’s storm response and in a draft decision, which is yet to be finalized, criticized the utility company for the way it handled its customers.

The state’s Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) concurred with several of PURA’s criticisms this week in a press release statement dated July 23.

Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz said the OCC supported PURA’s draft decision, which called CL&P’s response to Irene and the October nor’easter as “deficient and inadequate in several respects.” “The OCC is pleased to see that PURA is considering sanctions in future dockets,” Ms. Katz wrote.

The OCC also agreed with PURA’s findings that CL&P’s “much-touted estimate that 99% of customers would have their power restored by midnight on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011″ was “erroneous, unreasonable and harmful” and had caused hardship for many towns, residents, and businesses that made decisions about shelters, schools, travel, and business openings based on that incorrect deadline.

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