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Fast storm response bodes well for Vermont’s future

By Larry Reilly

After nearly three decades in the electric business, I thought I’d seen it all, but never have I seen a response to tragedy quite like the response to the remnants of Hurricane Irene.  As Vermont’s largest electric utility, Central Vermont Public Service was well prepared for the calamity that struck – yet we were challenged by its ferocity and overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of support from Vermonters of all walks of life.

From residents of towns isolated by washed-out roads and bridges, to utility and road contractors, to local, state and federal agencies, the question we heard over and over was simple yet welcome: What can we do to help you?

When a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, disorganization often wreaks tension, discomfort, delay and sometimes failure.  In Vermont, thanks to our dedicated employees and dozens of outside entities, we affected a quick and focused response that helped us restore electrical service far quicker than we dreamed during the first couple of days of the recovery.

Virtually every customer, contractor, town, city, state or federal official we encountered offered support and encouragement.  Many brought food and drinks to work crews, while others cheered as utility workers rolled into devastated areas to return some semblance of normalcy.

The news media did an extraordinary job spreading the word about recovery efforts, risks to the public and progress – which helped keep affected Vermonters safe and well informed during the power restoration efforts.

Access to remote areas with severe damage was our greatest challenge, but local road workers, private contractors, CVPS employees and state and federal agencies worked cooperatively to overcome major obstacles.  In Rutland County, a few discussions led to an early agreement for CVPS to hire the Belden Company to build a temporary emergency bypass of what was left of Route 4.  This allowed access by utility workers and emergency responders to Killington and Mendon, and eventually towns beyond, which had been isolated by the storm.

Nearly as quickly, town and state agencies began to team up with CVPS to ensure the quickest access possible to even more rural areas.  Direct contacts among us allowed CVPS crews to access places – and restore service – often before there were any roads accessible to the general public.  I’ve never seen such a high level of coordination and cooperation between a utility and road crews in my entire career in New England.  Vermont Emergency Management, the Department of Public Service and the Agency of Transportation were particularly helpful.

At the same time, CVPS employees demonstrated the resilience and tenacity that has earned the company three national Edison Electric Institute Emergency Recovery Awards – the smallest company to win the accolade even once.  Employees used four-wheelers, mountain bikes and an off-road motorcycle to assess the damage in areas where other vehicles could not yet pass.  Others staked and built entirely new lines in areas where large sections of roadway, and the roadside utility systems, had been washed away by floodwaters.

Other Vermont utilities, less affected because of the geography of their service territories, were essential to our recovery, as were crews recruited before the storm hit from as far away as Texas, Missouri, Illinois and Ontario.  Employees from Burlington Electric, Green Mountain Power, Johnson Electric Department, Ludlow Electric, Lyndonville Electric Department, Vermont Electric Cooperative and Vermont Electric Power Company provided invaluable assistance, as did local contractors too numerous to list.

Behind the scenes, employees worked to coordinate the response and feed and house hundreds of field workers who worked 18- to 20-hour shifts.  Others kept our vehicles operating, ensured supplies were delivered where needed, and handled thousands of customer calls, providing calm words, advice and comfort.  Some employees quietly went about their jobs even as their personal lives were turned upside down by the storm.

While Vermont faces an enormous challenge in the weeks and months ahead, I’ve been able to view firsthand the work that has already been accomplished.  Vermont has much for which it can be proud, including a tremendous work ethic, determination and ingenuity.

Those qualities will no doubt serve the Green Mountain State well as Vermont continues to respond to the challenges left behind by Hurricane Irene.  Based on the first 10 days of that response, I have little doubt that the people of Vermont will weather this storm well.

Larry Reilly is president and CEO of Central Vermont Public Service.

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