Safety-check issues hamper power restoration

After the devastation of superstorm Sandy, we look back as Long Islanders reclaimed their lives. Newsday (Nov. 10. 2012)

The effort to turn power back on for almost 90,000 Long Island LIPA customers was beset by confusion and controversy Saturday as inspectors went house to house in some affected South Shore communities to determine if conditions were safe.

On the 12th day since Sandy hit full-force, 64,402 LIPA customers in Nassau and 24,315 in Suffolk were still without power, the utility said Saturday. Company officials say 99 percent of those customers able to receive power -- those with intact electrical systems -- should have service restored by Tuesday.

Impatience and anger with the Long Island Power Authority's pace of recovery boiled over at three separate rallies Saturday and official news conferences, all demanding answers as to why they have been left in the dark for nearly two weeks.

Long Island Power Authority and National Grid officials acknowledged shortcomings in communications with customers but cited the unprecedented damage from Sandy.

"At the end of the day, we need to improve that process. No question about it," said Michael Hervey, LIPA's chief operating officer.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he won't talk to LIPA's top management any more. He said he is bypassing LIPA's top managers and working directly with local substation coordinators to exchange information because, "It became clear we couldn't rely on what the people at LIPA headquarters were telling us."

At a residents' protest in Massapequa, Dawn Kostakis, 41, said, "There is no communication and nobody has come to tell us what is going on."

Not far away, a LIPA-hired crew, which included a team of about 40 firefighters, went door to door with clipboards in one powerless Massapequa neighborhood to survey electrical panels. With permission, they entered residents' basements and garages using flashlights to check whether the panels were damaged by water.

"If they're not home, they're going to get their meter pulled, because we can't afford to have the grid blow," said an East Meadow-based private electrical inspector overseeing the survey team for LIPA who did not want his name published.

For those who failed the test, there was despair.

"It's time to figure out where we're going to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it won't be here," said Loretta O'Connor, 74, whose home on Division Avenue in Massapequa was deemed too unsafe for power restoration.

In Merrick, a homeowner said his home sustained electrical damage, but his power was turned on anyway.

Richard Zemser said LIPA told him that he and his neighbors wouldn't have electricity until every house on his block was inspected. But Zemser, 67, said his power was restored Friday without an inspection. Soon after, he heard his circuit breaker trip and went to his basement to find melted wires.

Saturday, a Westbury electrician inspected his home, giving him bad news -- his electrical appliances were damaged by saltwater and his house would need work before he could safely have power again.

Bob Baram, a frustrated Baldwin Harbor resident, also hired a private electrician after he was told by LIPA earlier in the week that he needed an inspection to get his power back.

Baram, 66, said that he passed inspection Thursday, but as of Saturday night, his home remained dark. He said he plans to deduct the inspection's $160 cost from his next electric bill.

"It is not about the money . . . it is about the arrogance and inefficiency of LIPA," he said.

Residents on Massapequa's Division Avenue said they had absolutely no notice that survey teams would be in the area.

On Bayview Place, Mike Liardi, 40, wasn't home when the inspectors first came by earlier in the day. But he was able to flag down a firefighter to take a look at his circuit breaker. "I passed," he told his neighbors, holding up the form.

At least part of lower Massapequa got power back Saturday night. P.J. Conaty, 51, said he noticed that the power had returned on Division Avenue about 7:30 p.m., but said most of his neighbors weren't home to celebrate the fact.

"It feels warmer here already with the lights -- even without the heat," he said.

The procedures to turn on the lights varied between Nassau and Suffolk counties.

In Nassau, town officials are communicating directly with the LIPA substations, telling them areas where it is safe to turn power back on. Inspections are continuing for homes and structures that were flooded.

In Suffolk County, county and town officials in Islip, Babylon and Brookhaven weren't requiring inspections but they were urging residents, especially those in flooded areas, to turn off their main circuit breakers and contact licensed electricians to assess and repair damaged portions of the electrical systems

Bellone said officials have gone door to door, made phone calls, posted notices in affected areas and put statements on their websites

Bellone criticized LIPA, saying its inspection plan was a "system thrown together five days after the storm." The idea that the inspections were for protecting the public was "ludicrous" and "lawyers trying to cover themselves," he said.

When asked if he thought bypassing the inspections could cause unsafe conditions, like fires, he said the towns are preparing for these possibilities. He noted Babylon has coordinated with its fire departments to have crews on standby, ready to react when power is restored.

"There is no way in the aftermath of the storm to prevent every eventuality that will occur . . . you have to balance the hazards and safety risks," Bellone said.

Islip Supervisor Tom Croci said it has its own team of licensed electricians and inspectors who are assessing homes there "to give fire services and residents an extra level of comfort."

Hervey, during the news conference in Hicksville Saturday, offered this advice: "If you're in a flooded home, open your circuit breakers in your house before we energize the area. That way there's no safety issue inside of the house."

Of what it took to get the inspections going, Hervey said, "I think there were more areas to cover than inspectors."

John Bruckner, president of National Grid's Long Island electric group, was asked why thousands of homes inland, in communities such as Jericho and Plainview far from the shore, remained without power.

"The number of customers impacted by this storm was just so tremendous," he said. "Those areas in the center of the island, while we had resources there, just demanded so many additional resources."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo joined Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman Saturday at a food and supply distribution point on East Park Avenue. The trio helped distribute buckets filled with cleaning supplies to residents waiting in line.

Cuomo continued to criticize the area's utility companies including LIPA for "failing to do their service."

"I'm going to hold them accountable, we're doing everything we can to make sure they get the power up, and they get it up quickly," Cuomo said. "I understand this was a storm and it was catastrophic storm and we want to be fair to the utilities, but I think they could have been better prepared. I think they could have responded faster than they have, and we're going to learn from it and we're going to hold them accountable."

 

LIPA TIMELINE

 

Oct. 29 Superstorm Sandy initially knocks out power to 640,000 of LIPA's 1.1. million customers, the utility says. Chief Operating Officer Michael Hervey says "customers should expect quite a long restoration" period.

Oct. 30 LIPA says a record 945,000 customers lost power due to Sandy. It will take at least 10 days, and "very possibly more," to fix the problems, Hervey says.

Oct. 31 Hervey says crews on Nov. 1 will finally make it to neighborhoods and businesses darkened by Sandy. More than 790,000 customers remain without electricity. in the dark.

Nov. 1 With customers losing patience and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directly threatening LIPA's management, the utility says it expects power to most customers will be restored by Nov. 10-11, though it "could take an additional week or more." More than 635,000 customers are without power.

Nov. 2 Hervey promises to have "90 percent of all customers who can receive power restored" by Nov. 7.

Nov. 3 LIPA says it has restored power to roughly half its customers, but criticism of the utility's performance by state and local officials intensifies.

Nov. 4 Responding to renewed Cuomo criticism, Hervey insists the utility is doing all it can. About 280,000 customers have no power.

Monday, Nov. 5 The outages are down to about 200,000.

Tuesday Customers in storm-surge areas are incensed to learn their homes and businesses now need new evaluations before getting power restored.

Wednesday A snowstorm knocks out power to 59,000 more LI customers, delaying a massive South Shore grid-evaluation effort.

Thursday LIPA acknowledges it has missed its 90 percent power-restoration goal. The number of outages spikes after LIPA adds 40,000 customers from the Rockaways and Long Beach to its outage map.

Friday LIPA Chairman Howard Steinberg agrees with the chorus of residents and local elected leaders blasting the utility's poor communication since Sandy.

Yesterday About 126,000 LIPA customers, including the Rockaways, are still without power. Company officials say 99 percent of customers able to receive power should have service restored by Tuesday.

-- Compiled by Kevin Deutsch

Power outages by region

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