Blumenthal Testifies On Sandy Damage To Connecticut

Calls for Redoubled Effort to Protect State from Future Storm Damage

(Washington, D.C.) – In testimony today before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) called on the federal government to redouble efforts to protect Connecticut from future storm damages and hazards. In his testimony, Blumenthal called for infrastructure improvements, flood mitigation measures along the Housatonic River, installation of microgrids and increased access to emergency generators, particularly for facilities housing seniors and people with disabilities.
Blumenthal called for a comprehensive national assessment of vulnerable infrastructure, paired with federal funding to secure utility equipment and public assets.

“We must be prepared for this new normal by hardening critical infrastructure and taking the time and spending money to conduct an infrastructure assessment which will allow states and municipalities to know what infrastructure is at risk and what needs to be done to mitigate that risk. Roads, bridges, flood barriers, and critical utility equipment may have been properly constructed but may not withstand the types of storm we can now anticipate,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal specifically noted a need for investment in Stamford’s hurricane barrier, built in 1969. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the barrier helped prevent $25 million in damage to businesses and homes during Hurricane Sandy alone. However, Stamford is still waiting for less than $1 million in federal aid to replace the barrier’s pumps, which had to be manually operated during the storm.
Blumenthal also noted a need for investment in flood mitigation measures along the Housatonic River, including better mitigation measures for mounting river flows, regulation of lake water levels, and improved warning and notification systems.

“Review and responsibility begins with the Army Corps and other agencies with historic involvement in these issues,” Blumenthal stated. “These projects could require additional financial resources, but there’s an even greater cost by not doing anything to mitigate these risks. If this is the new normal, we have to act now,” he said.
The Army Corps received authorization in 2010 to conduct flood mitigation studies for Five Mile River, the Housatonic River and Fairfield and New Haven Counties. To date, these studies have not yet begun.

“The Army Corps is overwhelmed with worthy projects, but if we are serious about flood prevention, we must empower the Army Corps to complete its mission,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal’s testimony also addressed the need for improved communication between utilities and local authorities, as well as investment in micro-grids to better protect against widespread blackouts. Recognizing that micro-grids and improved restoration efforts cannot eliminate power outage concerns, Blumenthal called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work with local utilities to provide incentives, and possibly mandates, for the bulk purchase of mobile generators for vulnerable populations.

“Widespread blackouts caused by weather disasters pose particular dangers for seniors, people with disabilities and medically fragile individuals. Too often, residential facilities for those citizens have no generators or alternative access to power,” Blumenthal said. 

Blumenthal specifically noted a senior facility in Preston that was without heat and power for four days during Sandy, as well as similar problems for vulnerable residents in Franklin.

Blumenthal commended the courageous public safety personnel who worked through the storm. Public safety personnel statewide performed 144 rescues, including 13 water rescues by the Milford Fire Department alone. The Connecticut National Guard supported 73 assistance missions. While Blumenthal commended utility workers for their heroic efforts in restoring power following Sandy, he noted the need for improved communication between utilities and local authorities.

“Too often, municipal leaders and emergency response crews were left in the dark, both figuratively and literally,” he said.

Blumenthal’s testimony was delivered during a Committee hearing on the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. A transcript of his testimony is below: 

Thank you very much Madame Chairman and I want to thank you and Ranking Member Inhofe for today’s hearing, and my colleagues who have stated so eloquently what happened in New York and New Jersey.

Connecticut really shared their fate, although the national media coverage may give the impression that Connecticut’s’ damage was more a footnote to the main story. In fact, the destruction and damage in Connecticut was every bit as real, and the pockets of destruction as pervasive as elsewhere. And I think many of the lessons learned that you’ve heard here form a pattern that we need to invest now or pay later. That there are measures we can take now to minimize the damage in the future, and we cannot be penny-wise and pound foolish to avoid those measures going forward.

And the other lesson that I think is striking here is that our efforts have to be complimentary not competitive. That we are mutually supportive in this effort. I’ve been asked repeatedly, aren’t you in competition with New Jersey and New York?  The answer is very emphatically “no.” We are mutually supportive and reinforcing as we are to responses that have been done to other disasters whether they’ve been hurricanes or tornadoes or earthquakes around the country. We are united as a United States of America as Senator Menendez has said. 

Hurricane Sandy’s scale and scope of destruction made it one of the largest national disasters to affect our nation, leaving millions of people in the Tri-State region without homes or electricity, and costing tens of billions of dollars in damages to governments, businesses, and residents. The sweep and depth of destruction and human impact and financial effect was simply staggering. And our response now has to match its historic magnitude. We need to think big and act big with urgency and vision. Right away, short term, we must redouble our efforts to reduce the personal cost and property damage of this storm and other storms and, longer view, the path toward enlightened protection and preparation must include infrastructure improvements. They may seem massive but they are well needed and deserved, such as [has] been done with Stamford Connecticut’s flood gate repairs, steps to stop flooding on the Housatonic River, and electricity security measures, such as the establishment of microgrids and increased availability of generators for various public and private facilities, especially for senior citizen housing. 

In Connecticut, disasters like Hurricane Sandy are quickly becoming the new normal. The storm is the fourth major disaster for the state of Connecticut in the past 19 months. Record snowfall in January of last year, 2011, caused buildings to collapse. That spring, Connecticut incurred destructive floods especially on the Housatonic River resulting from melting snow and tropical storm sized rainfall. Later in 2011 Tropical Storm Irene, and then a highly unusual October snowstorm caused power outages that took more than a week to repair. And most recently, Sandy hit coastal towns with tropical storm force combined with high tides and a full moon, winds and surges producing record high storm levels in the seas immediately surrounding the shores, and inland towns experienced significant widespread outages. 

And I want to thank the committee for this personal insight, enabling us to provide some personal history. I was out in the storm actually experiencing its ferocity and force as I visited many of the emergency operation centers and then afterward touring the state, by land, by air, by sea, as have my colleagues done. And most recently earlier this week with the administrator of FEMA, Mr. Fugate. And saw in the immediate aftermath, as well as during the storm, the personal courage of our emergency responders, the city of Milford’s fire department, that performed 13 water rescues, the National Guard supported 73 assistance missions, our governor responding with his excellent leadership, 18 state agencies, the Red Cross, the United Way, all coming together, including our utility linesmen and repair crews that worked tirelessly to restore critical electric powers to homes and businesses. And yet, I want to make clear that utility workers on the ground and in the field were once again heroes, but the utility managers – management of the overall storm response was regrettably lacking in some regions. Although better than last year, it was still inadequate in key respects and areas, and my many conversations with elected officials around the state indicated clearly that utilities need to better communicate with local authorities on the location and allocation of repair and tree removal crews in their communities. Too often, municipal leaders and emergency response crews were left in the dark, both figuratively and literally. And the utilities in addition have to follow more closely the municipal electric utility model and provide at least one electricity restoration crew to each town, working with that town’s public works department, to remove live wires and allow the reopening of roads. They have to provide additional resources to restore electricity to the most critical areas of every town which local officials know best. 

I want to compliment President Obama. The response by the federal government was quick and decisive, and personal visits by the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Administrator Fugate were extremely important in calling attention and gathering information so that the federal government could assist very directly and immediately in this disaster recovery. The total amount of damages is very preliminary but dramatic. Public infrastructure needs are in the tens of millions and these estimates do not even take into account the possible public infrastructure damage that FEMA may be unable to reimburse due to the lack of flexibility within the hazard mitigation program.

We built our infrastructure to one hundred year storm levels. Unfortunately, the one hundred year storm seems to be happening about every year and we have to be prepared for this new normal by hardening critical infrastructure and taking the time and spending the money to conduct the infrastructure assessment that Senator Schumer spoke about doing. This kind of study and streamline approach is absolutely what needs to be done and as we continue to fund infrastructure improvements the federal government should consider how such improvements may mitigate future water related damage and future tax payer costs for restoration.

One point here is that FERC continues to encourage transmission line redundancy and strengthening, but it should also consider similar initiatives for local back-up power sources. I note that ISO New England has just applied to FERC for a 9.2 percent increase in its budget. The regional transmission authority ISO New England should devote some attention to the needs in this area and I question whether this 9 percent budget request is justified and deserves certainly serious attention which I believe federal agencies should give it. In response to mounting advocacy, including my own, Connecticut is investing in microgrids.  A microgrid, or distributed generation, allows communities to generate electricity from many small sources instead of just a few big ones, and these microgrids offer an antidote to mass blackouts after storms, and I’m hoping that both FERC and ISO New England can be positive and active partners in the promotion of microgrids. 

Generators for senior citizen facilities have to be considered. I visited a number, one in Preston, encountered a similar problem in Franklin, Connecticut. These kinds of microgrid and electricity restoration efforts are necessary to meet the needs of our vulnerable population, and again, FERC should work with utilities to provide incentives and even mandates for bulk purchase of mobile generators that could be transported to these facilities on an on-needed basis... – as well as for permanent generators in other residential facilities. 

I have more that I could say, I ask that my full testimony be entered into the record, but finally, let me just say Stamford offers an example of what I think you’ve heard from a number of my colleagues about the use of hurricane barriers. In Stamford, a 17 foot barrier, which blocked an 11 foot storm surge from Sandy, was built in 1969 and helped prevent about $25 million in damage to businesses and homes during Sandy. Stamford is waiting for federal funding of less than $1 million to replace the barrier’s pumps that had to be operated manually during the storm. An investment of less than $1 million would ensure a saving of $25 million in avoided recovery costs and similarly, the Army Corps of Engineers should and must take an increased role in flood mitigation efforts, especially along the Housatonic River, where there has been repeated flooding as a result of these past storms, and review and responsibility begins with the Army Corps of Engineers, but Congress can help support and move forward this vital work. Flood studies will help identify how the state can be better prepared and equipped for these storm surges, along the Five Mile River in Fairfield and New Haven counties, the Housatonic River, a variety of places around the state of Connecticut where we know prevention works, we’ve seen it firsthand, and the investment now will avoid payment later.