County execs: LIPA to scrap evaluation policy

A Utility crew from Washington State secures a A Utility crew from Washington State secures a cracked utility pole near Roosevelt Field on Stewart Avenue. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

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Long Island's two county executives announced Thursday that the Long Island Power Authority will scrap its policy that required tens of thousands of South Shore homeowners affected by superstorm Sandy to obtain new electrical evaluations before they can get power turned on.

Flanked by town supervisors and village mayors representing communities hardest hit by the storm, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said LIPA's plan would have meant many residents in homes that were not flood-damaged could remain without electricity "into the next year," as they wait for everyone around them, including the more-impacted homes, to receive certificates of inspection.

The announcement by Bellone and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano came on a day when LIPA continued to be hit with blistering criticism of its work since Sandy struck Long Island 11 days ago.

With more than 250,000 customers still without power late Thursday afternoon, LIPA strained under the weight of the outages, an outsize workforce it has acknowledged difficulty in managing, and the roar of public condemnation of its work.

Late Thursday, Michael Hervey, LIPA's chief operating officer, said that Suffolk's approach to re-energize large areas was appropriate. He advised Suffolk residents who have experienced flood damage to their homes to make sure circuits are turned off before power is resumed. He said Nassau's approach to evaluations by electricians followed LIPA's own model.

Both county executives -- and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a separate news conference yesterday -- were blunt in their criticism.

"Our message to LIPA is to Turn. Back. The. Power," Bellone said to applause at Babylon Town Hall. "Get the power back. People are suffering right now and this cannot go on."

Mangano said LIPA had been ineffective managing its policy and change was demanded.

"From the pole to the light switch, they should be leading the charge to get the lights on," he said. Mangano even called on the U.S. military to take over the "managerial structure" of LIPA.

He said he wants the military to be tasked with directing the flow of information to the public and directing crews to neighborhoods that need power restored. He said he is awaiting a response from the Defense Department.Even as criticism of the utility was ratcheted up, LIPA acknowledged it would again not hit its goal of restoring 90 percent of customers in the dark who were capable of receiving power back onto the grid. And Thursday morning, the number of outages spiked sharply after LIPA added 40,000 customers from the Rockaways and Long Beach to its outage map.

Those customers came atop new outages from Wednesday's nor'easter that added at least 123,000 new ones, even as LIPA worked to restore the tens of thousands who have been without power for 10 days. Hervey said that, of the 123,000 knocked out by the nor'easter, 76,000 had been restored by late yesterday.

To manage the evaluation process, according to Mangano and Bellone, the counties will place workers at LIPA substations and more closely assess each neighborhood, case by case, in an effort to re-energize homes much quicker. Officials in both counties have readied volunteer firefighters to respond to issues and asked people without power to shut off their home's main electrical breaker.

On Tuesday, the utility had notified customers along the South Shore and in other flooded communities that their homes and businesses required the new evaluations before receiving electrical service. The inspections were to apply to about 40,000 customers from Mastic Beach in Suffolk to the Rockaways, in neighborhoods south of Montauk Highway, Merrick Road and Atlantic Boulevard.

From the outset it was unclear how long the evaluations would take or how they would be scheduled. Evaluations had not been required in previous storms that brought flooding.

Explaining the change in policy, Bellone said that inspectors in impacted neighborhoods over the last few days had seen dangerous situations involving residents heating their powerless homes with barbecue grills, kerosene devices and generators.

"What we are facing is a public safety crisis," Bellone said.

Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer said LIPA's policy had caused "mass chaos."

"It's unacceptable for us to have to stand here and tell members of the public that you literally could die in your home before an inspector is able to get there, when legitimately the power can be turned back on," he said.

At yesterday's news conference, Schaffer and Bellone blasted the utility's leadership, with Schaffer saying "my anger has reached the boiling point," and Bellone noting that it appeared LIPA "did not have a plan" to deal with Sandy's damage.

"It has become clear the infrastructure is not there to handle thousands of homes being inspected on a case-by-case basis, unless you're willing to say homeowners will be without power until 2013," Bellone said. "That's unacceptable."

Islip Supervisor Tom Croci said his town had handled 8,500 electrical assessments, per LIPA's policy, and forwarded the information to the utility, waiting on its action. He said it was now time for local government to step in and do the work.

"I've been to a lot of third-world countries and I've been to war zones," said Croci, a Navy veteran. "We've got residents in one of the most beautiful places in our country -- the South Shore of Long Island -- living like they're in a third-world country. They've got no heat, no light and they don't want to abandon their homes, their memories, and what's left of them. They deserve our help."

At a news conference, Cuomo said LIPA had "failed," and reiterated his calls for a "ground-up" overhaul. "They're this nameless, faceless, bureaucracy that is a monopoly that operates with very little incentive or sanction," Cuomo said.

LIPA chief operating officer Michael Herveyhas acknowledged bottlenecks in assigning the more than 12,000 work crews. And he said that National Grid is not facing a shortage of equipment as it undertakes the outsize job of replacing potentially thousands of poles, transformers and other equipment.

Cuomo said he believed otherwise. "One frustration for the company is that it ran out of materials," the governor said at his briefing. "They ran out of poles. Poles are something the utility company would want to have. How can you run out of poles?"

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