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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: LIPA can't weather Sandy firestorm

A LIPA Tree Clearance Crew removes downed trees

A LIPA Tree Clearance Crew removes downed trees from Sandy on Lefferts Rd. near Bayberry Ave. in Garden City. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Nine days after superstorm Sandy, too many neighborhoods, too many households here remain islands of despair. Some lack electricity, heat and the simple pleasures of hot food and warm showers. Others, because of the lack of telephone or Internet service, feel -- and in some instances, literally are -- isolated.

In some neighborhoods, like those south of Montauk Highway in Seaford, North shores community in Massapequa and Makamah Beach Road in Northport, some homes are uninhabitable. One resident reported seeing people on Merrick Road in Seaford burning wood in a large garbage can to keep warm this week. We've seen such images before -- during the Great Depression.

The catalyst for this despair is Sandy, which came one year after Tropical Storm Irene -- and one week before a nor'easter predicted for Wednesday. But a changing weather pattern isn't the sole cause of the nagging misery.

According to residents, local and county officials, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, much of the blame now rests with the Long Island Power Authority.

LIPA's goal, post-Irene, was supposed to be better storm planning, improved customer communication and, for the first time, a closer partnership with local government, which would give LIPA access to the eyes and ears of those who know their communities best.

The utility appears to be failing, badly, in every category. "How would I characterize their response?" asked Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone, a former regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's been like the Mad Hatter's tea party," he said.

Petrone complained early and often about what he said was LIPA's lack of response. Last week, he even put in a call to Cuomo's office. Monday, during a bus tour of some of Huntington's damaged areas with three town board members (which occurs now almost daily), Petrone criticized LIPA for not going along with a plan to partner with the town to identify and address the needs of hard-hit areas.

In an interview last Tuesday, Michael Hervey, LIPA's chief operating officer, said that the utility would give each town a crew that the town could direct. That didn't happen in Huntington, Petrone said. "They said they didn't need us," he said. "We were ready, but they said they would do it on their own."

Hervey, in a radio interview, defended the utility's response. "We have done much better at communication and processing information and much better on several items we were criticized for [after] Irene," he said. Sandy "was beyond the magnitude of what anyone expected . . . all we want to do is get the power on," he said.

But a disconnect between Huntington Town officials and LIPA was apparent to some residents of Pam Lane Monday.

"I'm not saying I'm blaming you or that I'm blaming LIPA," Tom White -- whose house is in a three-block area where neighbors said 13 trees fell onto 15 houses -- told Petrone and board members Mark Cuthbertson, Mark Mayoka and Susan Berland during a visit.

"From where I sit, there appears to have been a breakdown," said White, a retired air-traffic controller. "Where I worked, there were no excuses when a job had to be done," he said. "There were backup plans and contingency plans and if a vendor was a problem, there was no blame, it was my problem to fix."

Along Pam Lane, some residents have moved out for now. And those who remain among the downed trees and wires are relying more on each other than LIPA or any government.

That's admirable. But it doesn't negate the need for LIPA, as it promised early on, to accurately communicate what is happening, why and, most importantly, when the utility will restore power to neighborhoods that rightly feel forgotten.

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