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LIPA's Hervey: Huge workforce overwhelmed Sandy efforts

State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), in Long Beach on Wednesday, discusses news that LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey announced he was resigning. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Nov. 14, 2012)

The army of workers that converged on Long Island to repair a crippled electric grid -- more than 14,000 in all -- overwhelmed LIPA and National Grid's ability to dispatch crews to effectively complete work, and pushed costs to record levels, LIPA's top official said Wednesday.

The problem: an antiquated system for dispatching crews that could not keep up with the staggering workload caused by superstorm Sandy and a constantly swelling workforce.

"The procedures were not made for that large a workforce," LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey acknowledged Wednesday. "It started to slow down the process."

Separately, a day after Hervey said he would step down amid a firestorm of criticism over the restoration effort, National Grid said it was promoting its top official on the Long Island restoration effort.

John Bruckner, president of Grid's Long Island electric operations, was appointed president of the company's entire U.S. electric operations, encompassing upstate and New England territories. "This was planned before Hurricane Sandy," spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said.

As LIPA reported that the number of active outages has been reduced to less than 6,000 Wednesday, it is beginning to review why elements of the process broke down. Among them, Hervey said, was the system for dispatching crews and tracking work.

While LIPA-branded trucks owned by National Grid, which manages the electrical system, have mobile data terminals linked to dispatchers, the thousands of out-of-state workers did not. They required paperwork tickets and paper maps fed at area substations. "The system falls under its own weight," said a former National Grid manager.

Hervey said, "We need to look at it, because those stories have come up a lot in terms of bottlenecks."

Customers can attest to it.

"There were a lot of people here, they were not used efficiently," observed Barbara Prushik of South Massapequa, who had no power for 12 days. Repair crews were "sitting in parking lots, they were baby-sitting telephone poles and equipment, they didn't get any instructions where to go. They weren't used properly. Just total inefficiency."

Hervey agreed. "The ability to manage that many crews stretched the capability" of National Grid's systems, he said. " . . . You end up with bottlenecks in just assigning work."

It also led desperate customers to flag down repair vehicles as if they were ice cream trucks, urging crews to work on outages that the dispatch system didn't know existed.

"It just didn't seem like crews were deployed properly," said David Ozer of Roslyn Heights. "I had to flag somebody down, and when I got them, it showed on their map that I had power." He did not.

"It just turned into a complete free-for-all," he said. "I can only imagine the cost."

National Grid did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the two weeks since Sandy struck, National Grid amassed one of the largest restoration work forces ever on LIPA's behalf -- nearly five times the previous record, which was for Tropical Storm Irene last year.

For that storm, 3,000 workers restored service to 523,000 customers in about a week -- at a cost of $176 million. It has taken the 14,000 workers two weeks to restore more than 1 million outages. "Clearly it's going to be a very large number," Hervey said of the cost.

Peter Schlussler, a former KeySpan inventory manager who now sits on the Suffolk County Legislature's LIPA Oversight Committee, said an informed estimate puts the Sandy restoration cost at $700 million to $800 million.

While declining to comment on that number, Hervey said 90 percent or more of the costs could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is expected to pay up to 75 percent of LIPA's costs for Irene.

Hervey offered praise for Bruckner's efforts.

"I think John is a great guy, great to work with and great advocate for LIPA and for our utility," he said. "He's certainly always done the job [for] the Long Island customer."

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