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Housing shortage for out-of-state crews still reported

Out of state power utility crews have come

Out of state power utility crews have come to the Commack Fire Department to sleep on cots while they help to get electricity on to parts of Long Island still without power from superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 10, 2012) Credit: Steven Sunshine

When Jack O'Loughlin thanked a utility crew for restoring power to his Commack home last week, he was stunned to learn that the workers, who had come five days earlier from Alabama, were sleeping in their trucks.

More than 15,000 workers -- with more on the way -- have been mobilized since Sandy hit Oct. 29, but some say they have no place to stay.

With hotel rooms booked, officials at the Long Island Power Authority and National Grid, the private company that oversees electrical operations for LIPA, have been scrambling to erect tents and trailers, National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said.

O'Loughlin, a retired New York City firefighter who responded to Hurricane Katrina, was incredulous. "These guys come in to help us, and they didn't plan to house them and feed them?" he said.

"It's a major operation for 8,000 people," Ladd said, referring to the number of out-of-state workers. She added, "They know conditions are not always perfect."

She added: "We have beds for all of our crews, from a combination of hotel rooms, trailer camps, cots in facilities, and tent cities."

Commack Fire Commissioner Patrick Fazio disagreed. "These guys are coming in from all over the country to help us," he said. "They shouldn't have to be sleeping in their trucks."

He and O'Loughlin enlisted fellow volunteers at the Commack Fire Department to set up cots, hot meals and hot showers for roughly 145 men through Sunday.

While the utility workers said they were grateful for the hospitality, some expressed frustration at how slowly their restoration work has gone. They blamed poor coordination, a lack of communication and even New York traffic.

"We don't get told very much," said Jeremy Fisher, a lineman from Marshall, Mo.

Josh Westbrook, a crew chief with First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville, Ark., said in a phone interview that materials aren't being delivered to the field. That means crews are wasting time driving long distances on clogged streets instead of fixing outages.

In one case, Westbrook said, workers were told to go fix a downed wire. When they got there, they found the job was significantly bigger because of damaged poles. They had to leave the site to get bolts, wires and other supplies, wasting four hours.

Crews are supposed to be working 16-hour days, but Westbrook said, "We're probably only working six or so because of all the hassle we have to go through to get to where we're going."

Those lost hours aren't cheap. Out-of-state workers are making time-and-a-half -- about $60 an hour for many, Westbrook said. And while the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse LIPA for much of the cost, LIPA's Irene recovery from last year cost $176 million and LIPA still has not received full reimbursement.

Ladd of National Grid did not offer a response to Westbrook's comments.

With no computerized system for linemen, workers in the field are relying on paper maps and reports, Westbrook said. "It just takes so long to get everything rolling," he said.

Others called glitches understandable. Jennifer Egeberg, a crew guide from upstate Watertown, said, "They've never been through something of this scale."

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