Con Ed chief on prolonged outages: 'We will improve'

Con Edison CEO Kevin Burke answers questions during

Con Edison CEO Kevin Burke answers questions during a press conference as FEMA opens a Disaster Recovery Center at the Westchester County Center in White Plains. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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Con Edison chairman and CEO Kevin Burke on Thursday said he was "sorry" so many Hudson Valley residents are without power 11 days after Hurricane Sandy struck, but he stopped short of apologizing for the utility's performance, even as about 24,400 Con Ed customers in Westchester County remained in the dark.

"I am very sorry there are so many people suffering because their lights are out," a stoned-faced Burke said during a tension-filled news conference in White Plains. "It is taking a long time."

Burke offered excuses that avoided the thrust of most questions at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened a disaster recovery center Thursday. The center was filled with FEMA officials, social workers and government agency representatives set to help residents deal with storm-related problems. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester/Rockland) and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino also were on hand.

Astorino said residents have complained about a lack of communication as much as about outages.

"The common theme among most people was that they know they are going to get their power back eventually ... but they can't get the information they want," Astorino said. "If they only knew, they could make plans. It is the constant frustration of 'When will it be restored?' that is angering people."

The county executive said Burke assured him that Con Ed representatives would be able to tell residents at the center when they can expect to have their power restored. And Burke said all Con Ed customers should have power by the weekend.

Lowey said the perception is that the companies didn't prepare as well as they could have and were slow to ask for government help.

"I was freezing for about a week," said Lowey, who lives in Harrison. "Many of these people with children and the disabled are really suffering. As soon as there is word of a storm coming, we can't wait until a storm is here. We've got to be prepared."

A chorus of politicians ranging from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer to Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano has been skewering the utilities for the delays in restoring electricity.

Cuomo has said that the state will conduct hearings on the performance of Con Ed, Orange & Rockland Utilities and New York State Electric and Gas and could impose penalties. He has said those could range from sanctions to revoking the utilities' licenses.


As of Thursday afternoon, there were about 38,570 outages in the Hudson Valley, according to the utility companies. About 25,000 of those were in Westchester County; 500 were in areas covered by NYSEG.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm -- Hurricane Sandy left at least 100 dead in 10 states, 41 in New York -- about half a million customers were without power. Progress restoring that power was perceived by many as far too slow. By last Friday, there were still more than 300,000 without power in the Hudson Valley. Since then, the utilities have chipped away at that number. Wednesday's nor'easter slowed their work.

Burke said the storm overwhelmed Con Ed in large part because it was impossible to predict the full scope of damage to the region until it occurred. The company brought in 3,000 outside contractors from across the country to help, but that wasn't enough, he said.

"At some point in time, especially at the beginning of the process, you don't know how much work has to get done," Burke said. "Fairly quickly, the computer systems will give you an estimate of how many customers are out of service. But until you get people out there to do damage assessment ... we didn't know the answers."

Earlier Thursday, Cuomo held a Manhattan news conference and continued to blast away at Con Ed, Orange & Rockland Utilities and NYSEG.

"They failed. The utility companies failed," Cuomo said. "You can't be any stronger than I have been on the utility companies. You can't use any language publicly, any other language than I've used, and not have to worry about my daughters watching the broadcast, right? Privately, I have used language my daughters couldn't hear."

Asked to respond, Burke said Con Ed would do better in the future. Power would be restored to everyone in Westchester County this weekend, he said.

"The utilities, as in all organizations, will learn a lot from this event," he said. "We will improve and we will do better than we did the last time. We will improve the communication. We will improve the responsiveness."

Disaster recovery services: Westchester County Center, 198 Central Ave. in White Plains.

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Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, until further notice.

In addition to representatives from FEMA -- who can help individuals and families sign up for disaster relief -- the county's health and social services departments will send representatives.

Con Edison also will have staff on hand to answer questions about outages, and the Small Business Administration will provide experts to help local business owners apply for low-interest loans to repair storm damage.

To apply for FEMA assistance or social services, visitors should bring identification and should be able to provide basic information such as their Social Security number and address.

With Nik Bonopartis

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