PSEG Long Island employed a new boots-on-the-ground strategy this month when an unexpected storm knocked out power to more than 82,000 customers Aug. 4: walking the streets to offer water, ice, information and solace.
The utility employed 35 customer "liaisons" during the outage as temperatures heated up and the restoration work extended beyond a day. They walked the streets of Setauket, Coram, Port Jefferson and Stony Brook, among other areas, to offer information and assurances that power would soon be back. Most of the workers were back-office employees who worked on energy efficiency, but some were higher level.
"We just walked the streets," said PSEG president David Daly, who joined in the effort in Setauket and other areas. "When we saw a customer, some holding a rake or a chain saw, we just approached them, introduced ourselves, and said, 'Your power's coming back on today. I promise you.' "
While former LIPA officials also have been visible in restoration efforts, PSEG's use of liaisons is part of a new strategy Daly said will be used in future outages.
"It's a good process," he said. "In a storm that was more spread out, we'd increase the number of liaisons significantly. It becomes more effective in our communication process. It helps people understand what's going on."
PSEG also moved quickly to make water and ice and charging stations available for those hit by an outage. The utility set up ice and water distribution centers in Coram, Southold, St. James, Stony Brook, Riverhead and other areas. In Coram alone, it handed out 200 cases of water and 200 bags of ice.
Some customers appreciated the efforts. "They kept us in the loop, and most important I saw people working," said Richard Meisenheimer, a 35-year resident of Setauket, whose power was out for two days.
By the Thursday after the Tuesday storm, Meisenheimer's wife, Patricia, got a call from Daly telling her power would be back by day's end. It was. "When she came home from work she said, 'You won't believe who called me.' "
Meisenheimer said he received several visits from workers offering drinks and information. "I've got to give them credit when they do well," he said. "I thought they did a very good job."
Not everyone got that level of TLC. Perri Carol Fitterman, an attorney who practices from her East Setauket home and was "out of business" for four days, said she reported her outage three or four times to telephone reps, and never heard back. PSEG reps never knocked on her door, she said.
"All I heard was a taped message saying it's under investigation," she said. "I'm not impressed. They really left us in the dark."
Daly said that especially if storms are larger, it won't be so easy to reach as many customers. "We wouldn't want to set an expectation of knocking on every door," he said. PSEG received around 49,000 calls from customers in the storm's aftermath.
Alice Graner of Stony Brook headed off the need for PSEG workers to knock on her door by being out with them when they came down her street. She saw three poles replaced on her street the day after the storm hit. Power was back up by week's end.
"As far as I'm concerned they did very well," she said, giving high marks as well to Brookhaven Town Highway Department crews, which cleared streets by week's end.
Robert Sandak of Belle Terre said PSEG had his power back on by 8:30 p.m. on the same day the storm hit. But power for neighbors on nearby Beach Road wasn't restored for three days. "We kept getting emails saying power was back on but it wasn't," he said.
Daly said there were technical reasons why such messages went out, including the tenuous nature of the system after the storm, the fact that some customers were incorrectly grouped with others whose power had been restored, and that individual homes may have had problems on their property even after a bigger circuit was repaired.
He said PSEG is reviewing its work from the storm and working to find ways to improve it, including coordinating earlier with towns. But he's making no excuses for the company's performance.
"Overall I'm very proud of our team," Daly said. "We met the challenge and they responded very effectively on the ground."