LIPA outages dip below 300,000 as utility braces for coming storm

An employee of North Houston Pole Line works An employee of North Houston Pole Line works to restore electric service in Garden City after superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 04, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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LIPA Sunday said the number of customers without power has dipped for the first time since Sandy struck a week ago to fewer than 300,000, but utility officials, under fire from politicians, are bracing for another storm that could slow progress and cause even more electrical failures.

The Long Island Power Authority Sunday night reported about 280,000 of its 1.1 million customers still were without power. Its plan has been to restore 90 percent of its customers by Wednesday night, but several communities hardest hit by superstorm Sandy won't be hooked up soon.

Sunday, the utility also removed between 20,000 and 30,000 customers in the hard-hit areas of Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Fire Island and the Rockaway Peninsula from its outage reporting map, as it sends independent teams of managers to those communities to assess what's needed there, an official said.

But with forecasts calling for a nor'easter with high winds, gusts and seas on Wednesday, LIPA said workers who have been in the field for a full week, many for 16 hours a day, will try to work through the storm, though they may have to stop if conditions grow unsafe.

Historically, nor'easter winds produce outages -- a March 2010 storm left 263,000 Long Islanders without power.

"We'll have some other damage," predicted LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey.

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Earlier in the day Hervey brushed aside criticism from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, saying the battered state-run utility is doing all it can to restore power and confidence to its customers.

In a morning news briefing with other top governmental leaders, Cuomo blasted the region's power companies, saying they're just not doing enough. "I have made it very clear. . . . I am going to hold them [executives of power companies] accountable," the governor said.

"I'm not trading barbs," Hervey countered on a morning radio show. "What I am doing is restoring power."

LIPA had 10,000 field workers trying to restore the badly damaged electrical grid, Hervey said. The extra workers, most from out of state, allowed LIPA to reach areas of the North Shore that had not seen crews before this weekend, he said.

So many workers have inundated the region in such a short time, Hervey said, that some are sleeping in their trucks. LIPA is setting up trailer cities at staging areas and reserving hotels and other barracks-like shelters, but there's not enough for all the workers, he said.

On the South Shore, LIPA is working with Suffolk County and others on a system to identify whether homes are safe to restore power. Under the system, homes, many south of Montauk Highway, will be inspected and flagged with red, yellow or green signs to allow LIPA crews to know whether it's safe to turn the juice back on.

The system is needed because restoring power to a home with severe electrical damage could spark a fire or electrocution.

Citing the delay in restoring power to homes, Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) Sunday called the decision to keep power off to homes that were not affected "ridiculous."

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The utility's decision to remove the 30,000 customers from the outage map follows LIPA's analysis that up to 100,000 customers Islandwide may not be in shape to receive electric service. Hervey said it will allow LIPA to devote specialized crews to service the areas.

LIPA said it is trying to make its outage map more relevant for customers. By Sunday, only a handful of the scores of villages, hamlets and towns were listed with estimated restoration times. Most of the areas said LIPA is still "assessing condition."

"The fact that they are still assessing the damage is absurd this late in the storm," said Matthew Cordaro, chairman of the Suffolk Legislature's LIPA Oversight Committee.

Hervey blamed the problem on a lag in entering crew scheduling information into the outage computer system.

With temperatures dropping, Hervey said customers have expressed concern about where to go, and wondered how long to stay in their homes as the mercury drops. "Customers have a lot of concern and it's a valid concern," he said.

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But some customers aren't leaving.

Hervey suggested customers suffering outages seek shelter with family, the American Red Cross or other charities until power is restored.

Another customer, Larry Holzberg of Commack, took offense at a LIPA operator's suggestion that he should have been better prepared for the storm.

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