Federal experts must untangle LIPA response

LIPA worker Neil Williams, of LIPA's Emergency Services,

LIPA worker Neil Williams, of LIPA's Emergency Services, works along Northside Road in Yaphank to restore power that was lost due to superstorm Sandy, even though another storm is on the way. (Nov. 5, 2012) (Credit: James Carbone)

Long Island officials reached out to the U.S. government Friday to help untangle the region's response to superstorm Sandy.

Some might wonder why it took almost two weeks for a coalition of mostly Nassau Republicans and a Democrat, whose district crosses counties, to make the unprecedented request.

One answer might lie in the response Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) got during a rally of hundreds of angry, frustrated, powerless (literally) people in Oceanside Friday.

They were booed.

Murray probably felt more welcome later as she stood with fellow Republicans including Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), and Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Steve Israel (D-Huntington).

Their plea for federal assistance may have hit pay dirt, with word that President Barack Obama will tour New York to assess Sandy's damage next week. Still, it was surreal to hear so many layers of locally elected officials essentially broadcast their own inability to oversee the region's response and recovery efforts.

At one point, Israel called Sandy "Our Katrina." He's wrong on that because of the larger scale of death and devastation left by Katrina. And because Long Island has access to considerable resources New Orleans would envy -- from food to volunteers to the region's network of medical facilities.

What we don't have is enough power and gas and regional leadership.

That actually makes Sandy "Their Katrina" for the region's elected officials. As with former President George W. Bush, the effectiveness of their response will make or break political careers.

Some have been up to the task, though daily I've been inundated with complaints about full voice-mail boxes and unreturned calls.

Also, to the officials knocking LIPA: Know what you're complaining about. For one, LIPA is not a utility. It's a state authority. LIPA cannot be fired; and its organizational line stretches up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state's top elected official.

Cuomo has harshly criticized LIPA's storm response. But he's yet to address why the state started pressuring LIPA to change in the months before Sandy -- rather than force it to buck up storm-management and response in the 14 months since Irene.

Friday's plea for federal help was heartfelt. Officials want to bring in James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to manage LIPA's response.

But there's a difference between restoration -- which weary residents need ASAP -- and the region's recovery, which will take months, if not years. And Cuomo can't and shouldn't handle that task from Albany.

Instead, he should appoint an expert to map, coordinate and execute the effort. My nominee: Frank Zarb, former President Gerald Ford's energy adviser. Zarb, a Republican, lives in Nassau. He once ran Nasdaq and advised former Gov. George Pataki on the creation of LIPA.

Zarb knows LIPA was never supposed to masquerade as a utility; it was built as a bridge to an as-yet unrealized entity to provide electric service at reasonable rates.

Make the move, Governor.