Officials testify before state panel probing utilities

Nassau and Suffolk county executives testified to the Moreland Commission on how they felt LIPA's response to the widespread power outages were inadequate. More meetings are scheduled to help better protect the region in the future. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Dec. 11, 2012)

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Vowing to "shine a spotlight" on utility companies' response that kept thousands in the dark after superstorm Sandy, a special state panel took testimony from utility officials and Nassau and Suffolk county executives at a public hearing Tuesday in Old Westbury.

"The public is entitled to a thorough investigation and analysis with accountability for any negligence or wrongdoing," said Robert Abrams, a former state attorney general who is co-chairing the Moreland Commission, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and tasked with investigating the response, preparation and management of the utilities in the wake of Sandy and other recent storms.

Testifying before the commission, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone blasted the Long Island Power Authority for providing them with "inaccurate" and "untimely" information during the recovery effort.

"We often found that the information changed after being reported -- that was troubling," Mangano said.

Bellone told the commission the lack of real-time information from the company prompted him to bypass LIPA's top officials and dispatch county employees and Suffolk police officers to LIPA substations to gather updates directly from LIPA employees.

"The events that followed completely eroded my belief that LIPA was capable of serving Long Island residents effectively," Bellone said.

More than 100 people crowded into the SUNY-Old Westbury Student Union for the hearing at which members of the public, including Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), shared their frustrations with slow-moving restoration efforts.

"We felt cold, dark and abandoned," said Seymour Spiegel, a Jericho resident who said he was powerless for 14 days. Spiegel said it was so cold inside his home that he could see his breath when he spoke.

The commission plans to give Cuomo a report with recommendations by the end of the month, in time for the governor's State of the State address in January, Abrams said.

In contrast to the critical remarks delivered by the county executive, Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams said a storm response plan between the railroad and LIPA helped to restore electric service at "an accelerated pace."

"We had an action plan developed well in advance of the storm," Williams said. "It clearly did work after superstorm Sandy . . . We had a very focused effort, and the [LIPA] team stayed with us on that effort until it was completed."

New York Power Authority president and chief executive Gil Quiniones told the commission that LIPA had a flawed communications plan, and seemed unprepared for the influx of 10,000 additional workers from outside the state who came to aid with line restoration.

"It is clear that a workable communications plan must be a top priority," Quiniones told the panel.

Yesterday's meeting marked the commission's second of three scheduled public hearings. The panel had a hearing in Manhattan last week, and is planning another hearing on Long Island on Dec. 20, though a location has not yet been announced.

Commission officials said the hearings are intended to focus on the preparedness and response of the utilities to recent storms and recommendations for "restructuring the oversight" of the state's energy utilities, including LIPA.

Benjamin Lawsky, the commission's co-chair, said, "What happened here on Long Island was tragic and is unacceptable." He called on the panel to answer three questions at the hearings: "What went wrong? How and why did it go wrong? And how do we go about fixing it?"

Members of the public can send their comments to the commission before and after the hearings at comments@moreland.ny.gov.

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