Customers, pols slam pace of LIPA repairs

A Long Island Power Authority lineman works to

A Long Island Power Authority lineman works to restore power in South Huntington (Aug. 30, 2011) Photo Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

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Customers and public officials unleashed a storm of criticism on LIPA Tuesday as the power authority worked to repair a system suffering from what its chief called "significant trauma."

With damage assessment about 85 percent complete Tuesday, the Long Island Power Authority said the number of "significant damage locations" was double what it had anticipated -- more than 3,000 and still climbing. As of 5 p.m., some 240,000 Long Islanders remained without power, nearly a quarter of LIPA's 1.12 million customers.

"If our electric system were a person, we just got run over by a truck and we have to put it back together," LIPA chief Michael Hervey said at a briefing.

But customers who face a fourth day without power were hearing none of it. They complained of little or no notification of impending repairs, little evidence of crews on the ground, misinformation from customer reps and the perception that some crews sat idle. Even those recently restored to power were left with a bitter taste. "We were totally in the dark," said Donathan Salkaln of Center Moriches, where service was cut Sunday morning and returned after a fleet of Hawkeye trucks encamped in the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon.

"I have called six times -- six times -- to beg for some work to be done to remove it," said Kostas Katsavdakis in an email about a live wire in the middle of a Williston Park street. "Not one person from LIPA has visited the site to ensure the safety of the community."

Lawmakers Tuesday worried aloud that the situation was spinning beyond LIPA's control. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send repair workers because "there just aren't enough workers here right now."

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State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Center Moriches) prodded LIPA to restore power to the East End for the Labor Day weekend. "If power outages extend though the holiday weekend, the economic impacts could be devastating," Thiele said.

Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan was critical of what he saw as LIPA's lack of response. "Not only are they not responding, they're incommunicado," he told Newsday. "Everyone else is pulling together here; where's LIPA?"

Islip Emergency Management director Rick Gimbl said he was asked to supply locations of trees on wires to a LIPA official based at the Suffolk County emergency operations center at 5 p.m. Monday. "I told them, we have 145 locations. So far, just three have been addressed," Gimbl said.

In Merrick and Bellmore, irate homeowners said they were frustrated that LIPA has yet to remove at least a dozen fallen trees in their neighborhood that have also yanked down power lines.

"The first priority needs to be public safety," said Derek Donnelly, president of the Merrick Gables Homeowners Association. "Just putting red tape around a tree is not enough to keep kids from going in."

Downed trees on county streets can be removed by the Department of Public Works. But when trees pull down power lines, LIPA must remove them, giving homeowners a logistical nightmare, said Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick).

Despite the expanding list of damage locations, LIPA officials are sticking to their prediction that 90 percent of the work will be completed by Friday night, with the balance lingering into the weekend and possibly next week. "We think our estimate is still fine, [but] if we need to update [it], we will," said Hervey, who has power at his home, but said the majority of LIPA officers still do not.

One big customer complaint: "We have many reports of people saying, 'I don't see crews in my areas,' " he said. With hospitals and most nursing homes now with power, he said crews will shift to the more than 3,000 significant damage locations in neighborhoods and elsewhere. He said he hopes for a pace of 100,000 restorations a day.

But it won't be fast work. Tree removal alone can take as much as four hours, and work on electric lines can take another two or more hours. At midday Tuesday, 2,400 line workers and tree trimmers were in the field, with another 255 due from out of state over the next day or two, said John Bruckner, president of Long Island transmission and distribution for National Grid, which operates the local electric grid under contract to LIPA.

But with power still out and temperatures rising, there are signs customers are losing patience. Retired FDNY Fire Marshal Raymond Annicelli of Port Jefferson Station said LIPA has not given any priority to restoring his power, although the authority called Saturday before the storm to confirm he was on a "special needs" list because his 98-year-old mother, Mary, uses an electric-powered breathing apparatus at night.

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"I called [LIPA] and left a message. That was Sunday. I called today [Tuesday] and they said, 'We'll get to you when we can.' I was able to get a generator, so Mom can breathe at night," Annicelli said. "My issue is they put on this facade that they're willing to do something and apparently it's not true. If they said, 'you're on our priority list,' that would do and I'd wait."

Hervey noted damage from Irene was the second worst ever and LIPA was responding according to plan. "We're not satisfied that we're complete by any stretch of the imagination and we do understand the frustration."

With Yamiche Alcindor, Robert Brodsky, Sarah Crichton, Sandra Peddie, Chau Lam, Paul LaRocco and William Murphy

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