Inside LIPA's chaotic plan for electrical inspections

A utility worker places a plastic ring on A utility worker places a plastic ring on an electricity meter to prevent electricity coming back on in home that had not yet been inspected in Baldwin. (Nov. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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The Long Island Power Authority had no advance plan for restoring power to homes severely damaged by flooding from Sandy, despite warnings from experts who peppered their storm surge predictions with phrases like "life-threatening," "destruction potential" and "worst-case scenario."

Instead, it took eight full days before LIPA announced that as many as 100,000 South Shore homes, in a swath stretching 60 miles from the Rockaways to Mastic, would need to be inspected for water damage before they could regain power.

That surprise requirement -- a first for the authority -- turned a chaotic situation into something worse.

Frustrated residents, who already had gone more than a week without heat, electricity or hot water, demanded inspections, power and answers. But for thousands of people, there would be none of those things for days.

Elected officials working with LIPA in the recovery effort said they expressed anger that the inspection process appeared to be driven primarily by liability concerns, hampering the swift return of electric service to their constituents.

In Suffolk County, officials pulled out of LIPA's effort altogether, two days after scores of customers poured into Babylon Town Hall to secure an inspection. Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said a shoving match broke out, some town employees left in tears, and police had to restore order.

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"It was like being sucked into [LIPA's] vortex of hell," Schaffer said.

Newsday interviewed 20 key participants with firsthand knowledge of LIPA's inspection plan, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Nassau County Chief Deputy Executive Rob Walker and departing LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey. There was no consensus on whether the inspection plan was necessary, or where it originated.

Hervey acknowledged that the extent of the flooding, and the lack of a strategy for dealing with it, delayed the utility's response to outages on the South Shore. Ultimately, LIPA and local officials reported that about 45,000 homes were inspected -- fewer than half the homes in LIPA's designated area.

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The fallout from the inspection process, Hervey said, points to the need for a formal procedure for dealing with re-energizing flood-ravaged areas. Long Island should have a "good, strong regional interagency plan for how to handle this type of damage," Hervey said.

A special state commission plans to hold its first meeting on Long Island on Tuesday to investigate how utility companies prepared for Sandy's arrival and managed its aftermath. Public comment will be accepted on the authority's emergency preparedness and response.

Matt Wing, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's spokesman, said LIPA's inspection plan will be among the issues addressed.

"There is no question that this was one of many areas where LIPA failed to perform," Wing wrote in a statement emailed to Newsday. "Governor Cuomo's Moreland Commission is actively investigating their actions before and after the storm so we can hold them accountable."

Even now, many details about the inspection plan remain unclear, including the total cost, which LIPA expects will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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In Nassau County, much of the work was led by electrical inspector Richard Bivone. Since 1999, Bivone or entities and individuals using his home and business addresses have made nearly $90,000 in political contributions, the bulk of them to the Nassau Republican Party and GOP candidates, records show.

The idea to hire Bivone came from the administration of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Walker said. Bivone had performed the same task after Sandy in Freeport, which has its own utility. By all accounts, the work went swiftly in Freeport, where 4,000 homes were inspected in two days.

A contract with Bivone was discussed but never signed because LIPA stepped in to claim ownership of the initiative, Walker said.

Bivone was "absolutely not" picked for the job because of his political ties, Walker said.

"I don't play that game," Bivone said. "Clearly, my goal here from the bottom of my heart was to help those people."

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Records show that LIPA approved a contract that will pay $500,000 to $1 million for the inspections. Bivone said he will only look to be "made whole" by seeking reimbursement for expenses. Bivone didn't sign the agreement until after the inspections were completed and Newsday requested a copy from LIPA.

The inspections proved to be a critical stumbling block to the recovery effort. The process dashed the hopes of residents after LIPA's initial pledge to have their power back within seven to 10 days. And it eroded any confidence, elected officials said, that LIPA could get the job done.

 

THURSDAY, NOV. 1

790,338 without power

Three days after Sandy struck, Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) stood outside a LIPA substation in Bellmore about 8:30 p.m.

He had been up since 5 a.m., driving around his district in Wantagh, Merrick and Bellmore, trying to get a sense of when electricity would be restored. Denenberg called Hervey.

For the first time, Denenberg said, Hervey told him that homes in flooded areas would need to be inspected for water damage before LIPA could restore their power. LIPA would not handle the inspection work because it involved town electrical codes and because of concerns about liability.

Instead, Denenberg said, Hervey planned to tell the individual towns that they would need to handle the inspections and would be informed of this in a conference call the next day.

"You haven't told the towns yet?" Denenberg asked. "Are you kidding me?"

Denenberg knew municipalities wouldn't be able to marshal the necessary manpower overnight. And he worried that the best opportunity to get the process under way quickly -- by reaching residents at home over the weekend -- would be lost.

Denenberg said Hervey insisted that LIPA couldn't take responsibility if damaged homes caught fire when power was restored.

After he got off the phone, Denenberg's frustration turned to fury.

"It was the realization that there was no plan at all," he said.

 

FRIDAY, NOV. 2

635,761 without power

Mangano and Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, who represent areas that saw some of the heaviest flooding, were absent during the municipal conference call the next day. Their spokesmen later said that the inspections were LIPA's responsibility, not theirs, and that they spoke frequently with the utility's officials.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he listened to the call with alarm because he feared the inspections could delay the restoration of electricity for weeks. Bellone questioned whether the inspections were necessary. LIPA officials said they were.

Bellone agreed to do what he could.

By Sunday, Bellone said, he started to doubt whether LIPA had a grasp of the situation. He saw power had been restored along large areas of Mastic Beach, squarely in the flood zone, even though there had been no inspections there yet.

"It was my first real indication: Do these guys really know what's happening on the ground?" Bellone said.

 

SATURDAY, NOV. 3

466,849 without power

Over that first weekend in Islip, Supervisor Tom Croci, a Navy veteran, immediately mobilized town code enforcement inspectors and 40 specially trained volunteers from other parts of New York State. He arranged for the out-of-town workers to be fed and housed in a West Islip firehouse.

Croci's team of inspectors systematically fanned out, evaluating 8,500 homes. They sent information electronically several times a day to LIPA about what they had found.

By Wednesday morning, as a nor'easter threatened Long Island, Islip officials sent their last update to LIPA.

Nothing happened.

"We didn't see any houses getting power," Croci said.

 

MONDAY, NOV. 5

291,539 without power

A week after Sandy, LIPA and Nassau officials had still not settled the inspection issue. The question of who would assume liability was still in dispute, delaying any progress.

Talks were under way about hiring a private consortium led by Bivone, who runs Electrical Inspectors Inc. of East Meadow. The requirement that homes would need to be inspected before getting power had still not been made public.

Tens of thousands of Long Island residents living in the flood zones stayed in the dark.

 

TUESDAY, NOV. 6

211,752 without power

LIPA made an announcement, light on details, to the public about its inspection plan: Residents south of Montauk Highway in Suffolk and Merrick Road in Nassau needed to get checked for flood-damaged electrical equipment before they could get power.

Homeowners were blindsided. It was particularly bewildering for the thousands of homeowners in the designated area who did not experience any flooding.

Suffolk County handled the work with town employees and volunteers. Bivone mobilized hundreds of volunteer firefighters to fan out across the South Shore of Nassau County. The firefighters, who were told they would be paid $250 a day, left fliers at vacant homes with contact numbers for his company.

Bivone said his phone lines couldn't handle the call load. They went dead before the day was out.

Residents had had enough of anything related to LIPA, and tensions were high.

Bivone said there were "fights in the streets because nobody understood what was going on." He said at one house in Merrick, an edgy homeowner escorted one of his inspectors around the house while toting a gun.

"I don't think anybody was really prepared for this," Bivone said. "I don't think anybody really knew what was coming their way."

That day in Babylon, Schaffer said, nearly 100 residents mobbed Town Hall. Two men started shoving each other. Curses flew at town workers. Schaffer called in police, who remained at Town Hall for two days.

Schaffer said he realized that at the pace the inspection and restoration work was going, many of his residents would be without power through December.

"Before we got to that point, they'd burn Town Hall down," Schaffer said. "And I'd help them."

 

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 7

199,658 without power

The nor'easter hit, and power outages would climb back up.

That night, Schaffer and Bellone met Jim Giorgio Jr., president of B & G Electrical Contractors in Amityville, at the South Bay Diner in Lindenhurst.

Giorgio said he told them inspections weren't necessary because of concerns about electrical codes, as Hervey had insisted. They were needed only to ensure that the electrical equipment was working. And he pointed out that using untrained electrical inspectors to do the job could be risky.

Giorgio advised them to limit inspections to homes that actually had water damage and to tell those residents to turn off their main circuit breaker and get repairs. Schaffer and Bellone left the meeting convinced that homes in the flood zones with no water damage could have their power restored safely with no inspections.

Bellone said he thought LIPA officials were less concerned about public safety, or getting the power back as fast as possible, than they were about lawsuits.

"This was about liability," Bellone said.

Bivone and his inspectors, who by now were working for LIPA, had been going house to house presenting homeowners with an agreement: In exchange for inspections, they would hold harmless the surveyors and public entities, including LIPA and Nassau County, should the work result in any damages.

Diane Bates said her husband was prepping their powerless Amityville home for the nor'easter when she got LIPA's form. It was the couple's first communication about how the inspection program was supposed to work.

"This is what they are concerning themselves with?" Bates said. "This is horrific."

 

THURSDAY, NOV. 8

265,201 without power

At 7:30 a.m., Bellone and Schaffer said they called Gov. Cuomo. "This has gotta stop, or you're going to have mass riots," they told him.

Shortly after noon, Howard Glaser, Cuomo's state director of operations, held a conference call with LIPA officials and local elected officials. Schaffer and Bellone wanted the power turned back on without inspections.

Hervey said he was concerned about the fire risk. Lawyers had told him the utility couldn't restore power until all inspections were completed.

Schaffer erupted into what he said was a "blind rage."

"Now I'm negotiating with lawyers?" he screamed.

There was an agreement to dial back the inspection plan so that only homes with water damage would be affected.

However, Bellone said Hervey told him that LIPA needed a letter from him detailing how the county planned to handle any fires. Hervey also wanted the letter to note that the county had directed LIPA to modify their initial inspection plan.

They negotiated the language and passed around several drafts of the letter. By 5:30 p.m., Hervey signed off on the deal, Schaffer and Bellone said.

Then in a later conference call to both Suffolk and Nassau elected officials, Hervey said LIPA would still need affidavits from homeowners in Nassau, the men said.

That was it for Bellone. He walked away from the phone, saying, "I'm done."

He refused to participate in any more municipal phone calls with LIPA.

 

FRIDAY, NOV. 9

237,128 without power

Suffolk officials watched the power come back along parts of the South Shore.

Bellone said he was anxious to see the job finished. He sent 30 county employees to LIPA substations to provide outage information and to monitor the process.

Initially, substation managers were helpful. But Bellone said LIPA management eventually instructed substation employees to stop communicating with county employees.

Bellone stationed himself at LIPA's western Suffolk headquarters that night, intending to stay the entire weekend until all power was restored.

The next morning, LIPA security guards approached him.

"I said, 'Hello,' " Bellone recalled.

He stayed. LIPA's guards left.

 

By the end of November, the power situation had returned to normal. But the damage to LIPA's reputation may be permanent.

The disgust with LIPA's performance was widely shared among residents and elected officials. During the height of the outage crisis, federal, state and local leaders demanded a federal takeover of the flailing agency.

The state commission meeting Tuesday at SUNY-Old Westbury is doing so with a mandate to be aggressive. Never before has the fate of the power authority been more uncertain.

Cuomo, who initiated the commission, said three weeks after the storm: "I don't think you can fix LIPA. To coin an expression, I would say: 'End it, don't mend it.' "

With Mark Harrington

and Adam Playford

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