Restoring power to a record maximum of 945,000 disconnected customers will take at least 10 days, and "very possibly more," LIPA's top executive said Tuesday, even as the utility has begun to make substantial gains.
It still could be "several days" before trucks even make their way to neighborhoods, he said.
The crippled utility said that before it could begin turning on power in communities, workers first must get high-priority customers -- such as hospitals, nursing homes, government agencies and rescuers, as well as high-voltage transmission lines and regional substations -- up and running.
But LIPA made a key breakthrough Tuesday night, said Michael Hervey, chief operating officer. He said 44 of the grid's 185 power substations were knocked offline by superstorm Sandy, but by nightfall Tuesday, 15 had been restored. And bringing just eight key locations back by night's end could turn on power to 100,000 people or more, which would return electricity to a substantial number of customers.
As of 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, 870,747 customers were without power.
Hervey also said power to most of the 21 disconnected hospitals had been restored Tuesday. "We made quite a bit of progress on the transmission system today," he said.
"This will go down as, perhaps, the largest disaster in Long Island history," Hervey said. It is also likely to be the most expensive.
The damage is "about double what Irene's was," Hervey said, referring to last year's damaging tropical storm, which cost LIPA about $176 million in repairs and left thousands of people without electricity for more than a week.
While that doesn't necessarily mean the repair costs would be twice Irene's, he said, it does mean the cost is going to be more.
LIPA will take at least two to three days surveying damage, including by helicopter flights beginning Wednesday. Restoration work will go on during the assessments, Hervey said.
Heavily criticized after Irene and other storms for weak disaster response, LIPA was trying to bring in at least 3,000 outside workers, but competition was brisk for the extra crews in the besieged Northeast because of other utilities such as Con Edison.
LIPA said it had commitments from 1,250 outside crews and about 1,000 already were on the ground working repairs. National Grid supplied another 300 workers, and at least 1,750 more were being sought to deal with the large number of repair jobs.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo added to the criticism Tuesday, saying the state's Public Service Commission would oversee the recovery efforts of power providers, especially LIPA's because of its tarnished history.
"LIPA has had a very poor track record in just this area of restoring power, and we are going to ask the chairman of the PSC to specifically monitor LIPA to ensure the power is coming on," Cuomo said.
He said the state's worst power outages are on Long Island. "Long Island really took the brunt of the burden," the governor said, explaining that the number of people without power in New York State topped 2 million.
"We're trying to get crews from as far away as Texas and California," Cuomo said. "We're using National Guard personnel to do power restoration. And then we'll get on with the long-term reconstruction."
Still, some situations required immediate attention Tuesday, even though they affected neighborhood customers.
At the scene of a double pole fire in North Fork community of Aquebogue near the Meeting House Deli, for example, two Hawkeye truck crews contracted to LIPA pulled up at 3 p.m. to clear wires felled by trees during the storm. Trees stretched the wires inside a transformer, prompting an explosion that ignited two blazes that melted a car-size stretch of the roadway on Route 25.
"It was scary, but we survived," said Vanessa Farrish, who lives across the road from the fire.
Charlene Evers, whose family owns the deli, said a propane-powered generator allowed her to keep the store open Monday and Tuesday.
Hervey continued to remind customers to assume any downed wire is live and to keep away from it. The number to report an outage or downed wire is 800-490-0075.
Hervey said LIPA was clarifying anomalies discovered in its new online outage-reporting system, which, in some cases, listed more outages in an area than LIPA had actual customers.
For instance, it reported Tuesday 4,412 outages in Belle Terre, where LIPA has only 295 customers.
The utility said such inaccurate reports were due to outage figures based on substations knocked offline. A computer model assigned numbers to communities as a proportion of the substation's total customer base.
LIPA said it will upgrade the system to fix the glitch.
LIPA, a day after Sandy
Why is LIPA giving priority to hospitals and nursing homes instead of me?
Even though many of these facilities have generators, they rely on LIPA to power life-support systems and other key equipment, which generators don't always do dependably.
How soon will LIPA trucks show up in neighborhoods?
It could be "more than a few days" before crews finish repairs to the backbone transmission system and critical customers and begin full-scale efforts in neighborhoods, an official said.
Why is LIPA having so much trouble getting the more than 1,250 outside crews to come to Long Island to work?
Much of the East Coast's electrical grid, particularly from southern New Jersey to Massachusetts, has been damaged by the storm. Crews normally available to LIPA have been split among the region's utilities. In addition, crews from neighboring utilities that are normally released to work for LIPA have remained at home, focusing on their own problems.
So how long before all restorations are finished?
LIPA originally said seven to 10 days. But with 936,000 outages as of Tuesday evening, LIPA is now saying it could take even longer, perhaps two weeks or more.
-- MARK HARRINGTON