HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut is better prepared for a natural disaster than it was a year ago when the remnants of Hurricane Irene struck the state, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said some issues still remain, including the large number of trees that can knock down power lines and block roads.
The first-term Democrat on Friday ticked off a list of improvements that have been made, including the lines of communication between the state, municipalities, regional entities and the various utilities. He said there's a better understanding of who is in charge and their responsibilities.
"I think we're in much better shape," he told The Associated Press in an interview in his state Capitol office. "It doesn't mean we're in as good a shape as we can be, and I think it's a work in progress. But I think the lines of command, lines of communication, lines of reporting are in much better shape and have been drilled on than were in place when I became governor."
Besides the state's budget problems, Malloy's first term has been defined by weather. Connecticut was hit by a major winter storm days after he took office in January 2011. Then, last August, Connecticut was hit by the remnants of Irene, followed by a freak October snowstorm. Both storms knocked out power to hundreds of thousands, some for longer than a week.
Malloy convened a task force that reviewed preparations and responses to both storms and came up with a list of recommendations, many of which were approved by the General Assembly. Many of those proposals dealt with the electric utilities, which Malloy said were ill-prepared for the magnitude of outages. The lack of adequate tree-trimming was another key finding. The governor frequently points out how Connecticut hasn't been so heavily wooded since pre-Colonial times.
Connecticut has about 857 million trees and forests cover about 1.8 million acres, or 58 percent of the state, according to 2007 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most recent available.
Malloy acknowledges that both the state and the utilities have taken steps to improve their tree-cutting programs. Department of Transportation crews have been seen throughout the state on limited access highways working with a specialized piece of excavating equipment, nicknamed the brontosaurus, which can grind and pulverize a tree, top to bottom, in a minute or less.
In March, Connecticut Light and Power, the state's largest utility, announced it had nearly doubled its 2012 budget for tree-trimming to $53.5 million. That will enable CL&P to perform 4,900 miles of tree-trimming work — an increase of 1,600 miles worth of routine and "enhanced" work, such as removing dead or diseased trees with the potential to cause power outages.
Despite such efforts, Malloy said Connecticut has "a long ways to go."
"Honestly, this will take years of discipline," he said, acknowledging that falling trees and limbs will still be a problem with future storms. "I think we're better, but listen, we're not anywhere near where we have to be on the tree-trimming side. But we're better though."
Last month, the state held a four-day statewide exercise designed to simulate an emergency resulting for a Category 3 hurricane. The drill was part of the package of legislation approved by state lawmakers. Malloy said results of the drill are still being reviewed and his administration is looking at some outstanding issues, such as how to help gas stations remain open during a major outage and whether state employees can be cross-trained to help fuel up generators at cellphone towers.
Malloy said one major lesson he learned from Irene and the other storms is that many people, including municipal leaders, don't always take warnings seriously. He recalled how some homeowners refused to evacuate along the shoreline and nearly lost their lives and how many schools and businesses ignored recommendations to shovel mounds of heavy snow from their roofs.
He said people learned the hard way that Connecticut can be vulnerable to natural disasters, an issue Malloy contends will only worsen as the temperature of the earth increases.
"People just couldn't imagine," he said. "And now, I think people are much better prepared."