LIPA: Post-Sandy outages now under 2,500

A LIPA crew arrives to turn power back A LIPA crew arrives to turn power back on in a small section of Island Park. (Nov. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Seventeen days after superstorm Sandy hit the metropolitan area, 1,888 customers remained without electricity Thursday night, LIPA said.

It was not clear when those customers -- 1,594 in Nassau, 174 in Suffolk, 120 on the Rockaway Peninsula -- would finally be restored. But, those active outages were down from about 6,000 on Wednesday.

At the height of the outages, more than 945,000 customers were without power.

The current number of outages excludes customers with damaged electrical systems that can't be powered without repair, LIPA said on its website.

Meanwhile, LIPA and National Grid continue to be scrutinized for their response to the post-storm restoration, as LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey, who earlier this week announced his resignation amid a firestorm of criticism, admitted the authority was overwhelmed by the staggering workload generated by Sandy.

The army of workers that converged on Long Island to repair a crippled electric grid -- more than 14,000 in all -- actually thwarted LIPA and National Grid's ability to dispatch crews to effectively complete work, and pushed costs to record levels, Hervey said.

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The problem: an antiquated system for dispatching crews that could not keep up with the staggering workload caused by superstorm Sandy and a constantly swelling workforce.

"The procedures were not made for that large a workforce," Hervey acknowledged Wednesday. "It started to slow down the process."

Separately, a day after Hervey said he would step down, National Grid said it was promoting its top official on the Long Island restoration effort. John Bruckner, president of Grid's Long Island electric operations, was appointed president of the company's entire U.S. electric operations, encompassing upstate and New England territories.

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"This was planned before Hurricane Sandy," spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said.

National Grid announced to employees in a memo Wednesday that it had promoted Bruckner and congratulated employees for their "outstanding work" after the storm.

In a copy of the memo shown to Newsday, Tom King, president of National Grid US, told employees "Our performance during Hurricane Sandy and the Nov. 7 nor'easter is a great example of what we can do together as one company."

Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders who went as much as two weeks without power have railed against the Long Island Power Authority and its primary contractor, National Grid, for communications breakdowns, mixed messages on home inspections and what some have called a lack of preparedness. LIPA's 100 employees oversee the contract with National Grid, which employs thousands of workers, and contracts with out-of-state crews, to restore power.

As LIPA reported the dwindling number of active outages amid the scrutiny, it is beginning to review why elements of the process broke down. Among them, Hervey said, was the system for dispatching crews and tracking work.

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While LIPA-branded trucks owned by National Grid, which manages the electrical system, have mobile data terminals linked to dispatchers, the thousands of out-of-state workers did not. They required paperwork tickets and paper maps fed at area substations.

"The system falls under its own weight," said a former National Grid manager.

Hervey said, "We need to look at it, because those stories have come up a lot in terms of bottlenecks."

Customers can attest to it.

"There were a lot of people here, they were not used efficiently," observed Barbara Prushik of South Massapequa, who had no power for 12 days. Repair crews were "sitting in parking lots, they were baby-sitting telephone poles and equipment, they didn't get any instructions where to go. They weren't used properly. Just total inefficiency."

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Hervey agreed.

"The ability to manage that many crews stretched the capability" of National Grid's systems, he said. " . . . You end up with bottlenecks in just assigning work."

It also led desperate customers to flag down repair vehicles as if they were ice cream trucks, urging crews to work on outages that the dispatch system didn't know existed.

"It just didn't seem like crews were deployed properly," said David Ozer of Roslyn Heights. "I had to flag somebody down, and when I got them, it showed on their map that I had power." He did not.

"It just turned into a complete free-for-all," he said. "I can only imagine the cost."

National Grid did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the two weeks since Sandy struck, National Grid amassed one of the largest restoration work forces ever on LIPA's behalf -- nearly five times the previous record, which was for Tropical Storm Irene last year.

For that storm, 3,000 workers restored service to 523,000 customers in about a week -- at a cost of $176 million. It has taken the 14,000 workers two weeks to restore more than 1 million outages. "Clearly it's going to be a very large number," Hervey said of the cost.

Peter Schlussler, a former KeySpan inventory manager who now sits on the Suffolk County Legislature's LIPA Oversight Committee, said an informed estimate puts the Sandy restoration cost at $700 million to $800 million.

While declining to comment on that number, Hervey said 90 percent or more of the costs could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is expected to pay up to 75 percent of LIPA's costs for Irene.

Hervey offered praise for Bruckner's efforts.

"I think John is a great guy, great to work with and great advocate for LIPA and for our utility," he said. "He's certainly always done the job [for] the Long Island customer."

With John Valenti

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