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LIPA officials take heat over storm outages

LIPA and National Grid workers fix powerlines on

LIPA and National Grid workers fix powerlines on Seaford Avenue and Merrick Road in Seaford days after a storm hit. (March 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Fresh from their first big storm, Long Island Power Authority officials withstood a light grilling at a board meeting in Uniondale Thursday as trustees and others took aim chiefly at communications breakdowns.

LIPA officials, while largely praising restoration efforts, also conceded deficiencies in letting customers know how soon power would be restored.

Two village officials, including one who is a LIPA trustee, leveled the harshest criticism, saying constituents and local road crews were left in the lurch because of a lack of information and LIPA crews.

"My biggest complaint is with National Grid and the response we got," said Phil Healey, superintendent of public works for the village of Lynbrook, referring to the London-based company that manages the electric system. "It was totally unacceptable."

Later, Healey said village crews waited days for a technician just to tell them which downed wires were live so they could begin clearing trees. Electricity to a major intersection was out for three days, he said.

The largest storm in 18 years knocked out power to 263,000 LIPA customers, as hundreds of fallen trees downed utility poles and power lines, requiring five full days of restoration. LIPA brought in thousands of workers from across the country and Canada to restore power. The cost was estimated at $20 million to $25 million.

LIPA chairman Howard Steinberg also focused on communications failures.

"It is critically important our customers have a live human being to talk to when they're in distress," he said, directing staff to devise solutions.

Trustee Michael Fragin, who is also a trustee at the village of Lawrence, said even with his connection to LIPA, he was not able to tell constituents when crews would arrive. "It makes every town or village official look pretty bad," he said.

LIPA chief executive Kevin Law reiterated that the authority's response "wasn't perfect," and said several reviews were under way to improve it.

He disagreed with the claim by energy expert Matthew Cordaro that more local crews are needed, saying the full-time expense can't be justified. Cordaro also called for Public Service Commission review of the storm performance. A bill requiring PSC oversight of LIPA passed the state assembly earlier this month, but it's stalled in the senate. LIPA has opposed it.

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