With Tropical Storm Irene barely behind us, we find ourselves again in the dark—both without power and without answers. Indeed, after Irene the General Assembly convened several hearings to learn what was done well in response, and what needed to be improved. The resulting conclusion was that the utilities need to create better and more accurate communication channels with local officials, and to increase their tree trimming efforts. A fine start. Only two months later, though, Mother Nature has hit us again. While we arguably have improved communication capabilities, the quality of information is no better. We don’t know the “who, when or how much” of the response efforts—this is an unacceptable situation. The core problem, I believe, derives from the uncertain structure and transparency of the so-called “mutual aid” agreements between our state utilities and utilitycompanies in other states.
Rather than having a massive staff of response crews on the payroll (and thus in the rate structure), our utilities have agreements with utilities in neighboring states and Canada, and some private contractors, to come to their aid in the time of need. The timing, pricing and enforceability of these agreements, however, are something of a mystery. Are the rumors of trucks waiting at the border until they get paid and/or the right price accurate? Are our utilities forced to bid against themselves in emergency situations? Can our utilities seek redress if the aid is slow or nonexistent? Despite repeated inquiries, I have been unable to get a solid answer.
Thus, for the next round of inevitable hearings and proposed legislation, we must examine these mutual aid agreements and make the details known. Preparedness is the goal, and a frank analysis of who has our backs, and at what cost, is the method to us get there.