LIPA customers in communities along the South Shore and elsewhere flooded by Sandy say they were blindsided Tuesday to learn that their homes and businesses required new evaluations before the utility would restore their electrical service.
The evaluations, which will be conducted starting this week by teams of county, town and private contractors, apply to about 40,000 customers from Mastic Beach in Suffolk to the Rockaways in Nassau, in neighborhoods south of Montauk Highway, Merrick Road and Atlantic Boulevard, LIPA said in a public service announcement.
A number of ratepayers said they have never received the announcement. LIPA has never required such evaluations in previous storms that resulted in flooding. It was not clear Tuesday how long such evaluations will take or how they will be scheduled.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse government agencies for the evaluations, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). No cost was discussed. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the evaluations at a briefing on Long Island Tuesday.
"LIPA really needs to up its game and get this done, to get these houses inspected so their power can get back on," she said. "They need to move faster. We're now a week after the storm. They've still whole neighborhoods that still don't have power restored. And that's not acceptable. It's time to get moving."
LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey said if a home or other building is deemed to have its electrical system compromised, it may need additional work and an electrical inspection to get power back. LIPA first decided to require the evaluations last Thursday.
LIPA first addressed the issue of evaluations in a Newsday story earlier this week, and officials in both counties and in South Shore towns have also discussed the issue. Yet LIPA customers Tuesday said they weren't aware of the need for evaluations.
"No one had any clue," said Richard Remmer, owner of the Snapper Inn restaurant in Oakdale, who received paperwork on the order Tuesday. "No one had explained to us that this process had to go on. No one was giving us information as to what it would take to avoid a shutoff after the inspection. Even now I doubt that all my neighbors understand all that. There's still no organized way that information is being disseminated."
The LIPA public service announcement said that to "ensure that electric service can be provided safely and in compliance with the rules and regulations of the National Electric Code, customers who have experienced water intrusion to their electrical equipment must have an inspection conducted by an approved electrical inspection agency, certifying that the premises are safe to energize."
Service will only be restored once LIPA receives such a certificate from each home, and those deemed unsafe will have their electric meters pulled, LIPA said. Inspectors are grading houses with red, yellow and green stickers to determine whether they can receive service -- green automatically, yellow after some work, and red potentially never.
Robert Baram of Baldwin Harbor said he heard of the announcement secondhand Tuesday.
"The problem is communication between LIPA and the public," he said. "The question I have is, do we have to wait if we have no flooding or water damage to have power turned on?"
Hervey said as long as evaluators give homes the green light, they can be restored almost immediately.
"If a house or neighborhood was dry, we just need to have evaluators tell us that," Hervey said. "The homeowner has to do nothing more than to be at home to answer the door for an inspector."
But neither he nor other officials would put a timetable on the work.
Nassau County Tuesday approved an outside contractor to conduct the inspections, according to Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), many of whose constituents are in flooded areas. He blamed poor coordination and finger-pointing among public officials for the delay in starting the Nassau inspections.
"This is the worst example of finger-pointing and no one stepping up to serve the residents that I've ever seen," Denenberg said.
The Town of Hempstead has maintained that it "doesn't have those inspectors," and thus couldn't assign them to LIPA to conduct certifications, according to Mike Deery, a town spokesman.
"We don't require a town inspector and we don't do them," he said.
Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, said, "Residents can call the LIPA hotline to request an inspection. Only those who received water intrusion into their home need an inspection and LIPA can clarify who needs one."
Hervey acknowledged that power is still off in some neighborhoods despite a lack of damage because LIPA or local emergency crews requested it. Other than the public service announcement, LIPA hasn't yet publicly released a statement about the new evaluations.
"There will be communication," Hervey said. "We're in the throes of this being formulated."