Hundreds of Oceanside residents without power rally

Oceanside residents rally to express their anger over

Oceanside residents rally to express their anger over LIPA's handling of the power outages in the wake of superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 9, 2012) (Credit: WCBS-TV)

Anger toward the Long Island Power Authority for its response to Sandy boiled over Friday as residents demonstrating against the utility in Oceanside cursed and booed Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, and Nassau County and federal elected officials demanded the federal government play a key role in the restoration of power.

As officials spoke, more than 100,000 of the utility's customers in Suffolk and Nassau counties remained without power nearly two weeks after the superstorm struck.

That anger was bared in Oceanside, where both Murray and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) appeared at an elementary school. And at a news conference in Bethpage, a bevy of officials -- including Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Steve Israel (D-Huntington) -- argued that LIPA was incapable of restoring power in a speedy manner.

They called on the White House to deploy every available resource, including manpower and equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Defense and Energy.

"People are desperate for information," Skelos said. "When are they going to respond to the human needs out there? . . . This is our Katrina."

Mechanisms for takeover

The demand for federal participation is not beyond the possible. Paul Sabatino, a municipal law expert and former Suffolk legislative counsel, said there are mechanisms to allow temporary federal oversight, one being a consent agreement. However, he said any long-term change to LIPA's oversight structure would require action by the State Legislature, which created the authority.

"It is a New York State authority," Sabatino said of LIPA. "It's not like this is some private entity that has run amok or some entity from Mars who came to run the grid. It's a public entity."

The White House and the U.S. Energy Department referred calls to FEMA, which did not respond to requests for comment. A Defense Department spokesman said appeals for federal involvement would come from FEMA, but the Pentagon had gotten no such request.

King, who joined in the call for a federal role in the restoration of power, said he expects an answer from the White House within the next several days.

Israel said he asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- who held his own news conference yesterday -- to bring in former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who managed the recovery after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana, to oversee the restoration of power on Long Island. Witt agreed to take over the effort if asked, he said.

Cuomo at his news conference said that he knows Long Island politicians are vexed, that he, too, wants more federal assistance, and that he has been speaking with President Barack Obama about the matter. However, Cuomo, who has strongly criticized LIPA in recent days, appeared to soften his stance, saying that other utilities in the state have been slower to restore power.

Repeated attempts to contact LIPA officials for comment were unsuccessful throughout the day Friday. National Grid, the private company that oversees utility operations, held a news conference last night at which they said 95 percent of customers not affected by flooding should have power by Tuesday night.In New Jersey, officials said fewer than 200,000 statewide remained without power, and they said they expected all outages to be repaired by the end of the weekend.

The officials who spoke at the National Grid news conference defended the company's response to the storm. They referred questions about LIPA's communications with the public, as well as questions about LIPA equipment and infrastructure, to the utility, according to reports by News 12 Long Island.

"We are progressing very well based on the unprecedented damage in the storm," said John Bruckner, president of National Grid's Long Island electric group. "As far as the system being obsolete, the owner of the system would be in a better position to answer that question."

Answers demanded

Hundreds of angry Oceanside residents gathered outside Elementary School 8 in the morning to slam the utility. McCarthy and Murray spoke as advocates for the demonstrators, but were heckled and booed.

The women were at times drowned out by chants of "What do we want? Power! When do we want it? Now!" and "We want answers!" At least one protester showered Murray with expletives.

Also seeking answers were local officials who say LIPA has failed to effectively coordinate its response to Sandy with them, despite pledges to improve after Tropical Storm Irene.

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said residents are calling and emailing town officials asking when their power will be restored, but he is unable to provide answers.

"What I found lacking was the inability of LIPA to notify government offices as to where they would be working," Vecchio said.

Michael Deery, Hempstead Town spokesman, said LIPA had "absolutely" failed to coordinate restoration efforts with town workers -- even after LIPA and Hempstead officials hammered out a plan after the failures of Irene.

"Coordination has been a problem, and it's been an ongoing problem," Deery said. "It has been a source of frustration for the town."

Deery said the plan crafted after Irene called for LIPA workers to follow town tree trimmers and do necessary line work. But that didn't happen after Sandy.

Exactly what, if anything, residents in South Shore flood zones without power can do to help expedite the return of their electricity remained unclear Friday. Earlier this week, LIPA announced that homes in those areas needed their electrical systems checked for water damage before getting power.

On Thursday, Mangano and Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone said the counties were taking over management of the controversial inspection process. However, Bellone's office did not respond Friday to a request for details as to exactly how this effort would work. And a Mangano representative referred questions to LIPA.

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