Schumer: FEMA must ensure electric grid gets stronger

A plea to the Long Island Power Authority

A plea to the Long Island Power Authority for electricity to be restored is posted on a barrier in Mastic Beach, N.Y. (Oct. 31, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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Long Islanders have a long and tortured relationship with their electric providers. For far too long, ratepayers in Nassau and Suffolk counties have paid the highest rates in the country but received a subpar service. Superstorm Sandy, as we know, was no exception.

Nearly a million people were without power at the beginning of the storm, and for over two weeks the country watched as an inept and unprepared utility struggled to even communicate, let alone restore power, to its customers. The damage to Long Island's ancient electric grid was eye-popping; according to some estimates, the costs could reach nearly $1 billion.

Fortunately for ratepayers, the Long Island Power Authority is still a public entity -- despite potential plans to privatize it in the future -- and therefore eligible for federal disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This means that many of the costs associated with the repair and recovery of the electric grid will not be passed on to ratepayers. But will LIPA use this moment simply to rebuild the electric grid, or will it smarten and harden the grid to prevent a Sandy-like catastrophe in the future?


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For FEMA to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, it must require that LIPA strengthen the grid and reform its storm response plans as a condition of its reimbursement.

That way if, God forbid, there is another storm in the near future, we won't have the same awful result. Why must this be a condition of the aid? Because LIPA has made it abundantly clear that it does not learn from past disasters and won't do this on its own.

Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 revealed that LIPA had a major lack of investment in leadership, planning and infrastructure to protect the region's power supply. It also exposed a lack of both foresight and oversight in storm response, and showed Long Island how little had been done to upgrade the infrastructure that keeps the grid together. Even so, virtually no progress was made before Sandy struck 14 months later. We also know that any privatization plan will take years to implement and we cannot leave the grid without substantive protections in the meantime.

Luckily, under the laws that govern disaster response, federal funds are available to make the grid more durable. FEMA can work with a disaster recipient like LIPA to incorporate mitigation improvements into its reimbursement application.

But a critical step must be taken first: FEMA must accept an application, submitted by the state on LIPA's behalf, for a systemwide application for mitigation funds. This money would come from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, in addition to the federal reimbursement for the recovery costs already incurred by LIPA, so ratepayers would not be paying higher rates to strengthen the grid. The Sandy relief bill that passed the House Tuesday and will go to the Senate next week would provide additional money for the fund so that critical work like LIPA mitigation can commence.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate and the New York State Emergency Management Office are discussing the mitigation proposal, which has been submitted. FEMA must now accept it and require that LIPA follow through. Brookhaven National Laboratory, where a team of scientists working jointly with Stony Brook University is working on smart grid and energy storage research, is also joining the effort to improve the region's readiness.

Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on Long Island's electric infrastructure. More than 4,500 poles, 400 miles of electric line, and 50 out of 185 substations were damaged or destroyed by Sandy. It has become painfully clear that LIPA has not done enough over the years to harden the system or flood-proof substations. Nor did it invest in a modern "smart grid" system that allows utilities to use computers and sensors to respond to outages and communicate with customers. The lack of investment in electric grid storm mitigation is now costing us big time. Let's not make the same mistake twice.

Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, is the senior senator from New York.

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