Cuomo on utilities: 'Not God-given monopolies'

Utility crews repair electrical wires in Rockland County

Utility crews repair electrical wires in Rockland County that were damaged in superstorm Sandy's wake. (Nov. 2012) (Credit: Angela Gaul)

Hudson Valley leaders blasted the region's electric utilities on Monday as election officials scrambled to prepare for the presidential vote, gas lines shrunk slightly, kids returned to school and a nor'easter threatened to bring more wind and rain to residents struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

"I am not happy with any of them," Cuomo said of Con Edison, Orange & Rockland and New York State Electric and Gas during an evening news conference in Albany. "The utility companies have not performed adequately. I have let them know that."

Cuomo said the state would conduct hearings on the performance of the utilities and potentially impose penalties, which could range from sanctions to revoking their licenses.


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"We can contract with other utility companies," Cuomo said, noting that 480,000 New Yorkers still have no electricity, including about 110,000 utility customers in the Hudson Valley. "These are not God-given monopolies. I will review all of them."

Cuomo took his shots after county executives in Rockland, Westchester and Orange County said they were fed up.

Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef had a news conference with Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy as about 19,000 Rockland County customers remained without power as of late Monday. The number of outages represents around 20 percent of the county's residents, Vanderhoef said.

"One in five people after 7 1/2 days is unacceptable," he said. "They are angry and frustrated and they want to know what we're doing. It's just impossible to think that that many people will spend a cold night in Rockland County without any power."

In Westchester County, County Executive Rob Astorino said that he would climb utility poles and join repair crews if it would help the approximately 70,000 Westchester County residents who still didn't have electricity as of Monday evening.

But Astorino added that stridency would not speed up the process.

"The louder we shout, 'Death penalty for the utility companies' is not going to get things done any more quickly," Astorino said. "Rest assured we're holding their feet to the fire."

With about 14,000 Orange County residents still without power on Monday night, County Executive Ed Diana demanded that state regulators review the performance of utility companies.

"It is simply unacceptable that so many Orange County residents remain without power this long after the storm," Diana said in a statement. "The outages threaten the life and safety of our residents, especially our sick and elderly."

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano also chimed in, charging that Con Ed has failed to respond to the city's 10,000 customers without power.

"Yonkers has been overlooked by Con Ed," Spano said in a statement.

O&R spokesman Mike Donovan acknowledged that "frustration is building up" but said power had been restored to 81 percent of the company's customers in Rockland County and 80 percent in Orange County.

"We're doing everything we can," Donovan said.

Con Edison Spokesman Allan Drury said the delays in bringing power back were a result of the scope of Sandy's damage.

Tropical Storm Irene, which had been the biggest storm in Con Ed history, caused blackouts for 203,841 customers in 2011, Drury said. By contrast, Sandy knocked out more than 950,000. "This is not only the biggest in company history, but the biggest by a huge margin," Drury said.

The power outages caused board of elections officials throughout the Hudson Valley to scramble for much of the day to make sure polling stations had electricity. By Monday evening, Rockland and Orange counties had designated a few alternate sites, and Westchester County officials told voters to proceed to their normal locations, saying generators would be running at buildings in need of power.

"All voters should go to their regular polling places," said Westchester County Board of Election Commissioners Douglas Colety and Reginald LaFayette in a public statement.

Random observations and comments from drivers suggested gas lines were growing shorter on Monday as repairs brought electricity to stations that had shut down and other were resupplied. But it was still common to wait a few hours for gas on Monday evening. Many New Yorkers were traveling upstate or to Connecticut to find open stations.

Charles Green, a Manhattan resident working a construction job in Peekskill, pulled his car into the Shell station in Westchester County as his gas gauge registered empty early on Monday and fueled up quickly.

"I'm pretty much shocked," Green said. "I feel like I got lucky, really lucky."

At his news conference, Cuomo said the state was streamlining rules to bring fuel from neighboring states. But he also warned people not to gas up more than they needed.

"Hoarding is only going to compound the situation and make it worse," he said.

The sense that the region was slowly but surely bouncing back was perhaps most pronounced in schools that opened after a week of closures due to the storm.

Sixteen-year-old Jess Tuttman, an 11th-grader at Ossining High School, said he was easing back into his regular routine.

"I just want to get back into the swing of things," he said.

Monday's good news was tempered by fears of the nor'easter that was threatening to arrive in the Hudson Valley on Wednesday.

Forecast to churn up the coast from Georgia, the storm could bring more rain and pack gusts of 35-40 mph in the southern portions of the Hudson Valley and 25-35 mph farther north, National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Pollina said.

"The trees that endured Sandy may have been weakened a little," he said. "Any wind that comes with this storm could make other trees fall down."

Early in the day, Con Edison issued a statement saying that 84 percent of customers who had lost power during Sandy had their power restored, significant progress on the company's pledge to fix 90 percent of power outages by the end of the weekend. The company added that the coming nor'easter could slow restoration efforts.

"The company is monitoring the rain and wind forecasted for later this week," the statement said. The company said high winds and heavy rains could delay work on homes and businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy and could cause additional outages."

O&R's Donovan was more positive. The extraordinarily large group of 2,500 outside contractors supplementing the utility's 1,000-strong in-house repair force puts the company in a unique position to cope with the storm, he said.

"We have sufficient crews to address any damage," he said. "We're not setting aside crews to deal with the nor'easter. When it comes, we'll deal with it."

Although he didn't relieve the utilities of their responsibilities, Cuomo agreed that the new storm could hamper the region's recovery.

"This is complicated because it is a storm that would approach before we've recovered from the first storm and it would hit communities, some of which will not have power," the governor said.

Relief workers warned residents without heat to beware of signs of hypothermia as temperatures dip into the 30s in the coming days.

"If you feel yourself getting confused, where you can't feel your extremities, make sure you have plenty of blankets and you drink plenty of water," said Naomi Adler, president of the United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

With Meghan Murphy, Timothy O'Connor and Christian Wade

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