Long Island's two county executives announced Thursday afternoon that they've convinced LIPA to scrap its blanket policy that required tens of thousands of homeowners affected by superstorm Sandy to obtain new electrical evaluations before they could get their power turned back on.
Flanked by town supervisors and village mayors representing Shore Shore communities hit by the storm, an animated Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said that LIPA's plan -- announced earlier this week -- would mean many residents in homes that were not flood damaged could remain without heat or power "into the next year," as they wait for everyone around them, including the more impacted homes, to receive certificates of inspection.
Instead, Nassau and Suffolk counties will place workers at LIPA substations and more closely assess each neighborhood in an effort to re-energize some homes much sooner. Those who sustained severe flooding must still obtain inspections.
"Our message to LIPA is to turn. Back. The. Power," Bellone said to applause at Babylon Town Hall. "Get the power back. People are suffering right now and this cannot go on."
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano had a similar message. He said LIPA had been ineffective in managing the policy, and would now be expected to lead this new process with better results.
"From the pole to the light switch, they should be leading the charge to get the lights on," Mangano said.
LIPA officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Tuesday, the utility had notified customers along the South Shore and in other flooded communities that their homes and businesses required the new evaluations before the utility would restore electrical service. They were to apply to about 40,000 customers from Mastic Beach in Suffolk to the Rockaways in Nassau, in neighborhoods south of Montauk Highway, Merrick Road and Atlantic Boulevard.
Teams of county, town and private contractors were charged with conducting the evaluations. But since the announcement, it had been unclear how long the evaluations would take or how they would be scheduled. Evaluations were not required in previous storms that brought flooding.
Bellone said the inspectors out in impacted neighborhoods over the last few days had seen dangerous situations involving residents heating their powerless homes with barbecue grills, kerosene devices and generators, indoors.
"What we are facing is a public safety crisis," Bellone said.
The earlier LIPA public service announcement said that to "ensure that electric service can be provided safely and in compliance with the rules and regulations of the National Electric Code, customers who have experienced water intrusion to their electrical equipment must have an inspection conducted by an approved electrical inspection agency, certifying that the premises are safe to energize."
Service would only be restored after LIPA receives such a certificate from each home, and those deemed unsafe will have their electric meters pulled, LIPA said. Inspectors were grading houses with red, yellow and green stickers to determine whether they can receive service -- green automatically, yellow after some work and red potentially never.
But Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer said that the policy was causing "mass chaos" in his jurisdiction. He talked about seeing residents crying at town hall as they tried to get the soonest inspection they could.
"It's unacceptable for us to have to stand here and tell members of the public that you literally could die in your home before an inspector is able to get there," Schaffer said, "when legitimately, the power can be turned back on."
Those who may have been impacted by floods must pay for a private inspector to check and clear them, said LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey. Hervey had urged customers not to call LIPA or public officials to schedule a first-level evaluation, saying they would be conducted in an "orderly" process and expedited by hundreds of newly recruited inspectors today.
Hervey said the utility was working with Nassau County to send teams of inspectors into the field to conduct evaluations of homes to make sure they are safe to have power restored.
Several ratepayers have complained that they never received LIPA's notice about the evaluations.
With Mark Harrington and Laura Figueroa