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What went wrong with PSEG's efforts to recover from Isaias

A PSEG worker works on restoring power in

A PSEG worker works on restoring power in front of a home on Smith Road in Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday. Credit: James Carbone

As Tropical Storm Isaias began its rapid advance up the East Coast after making landfall in North Carolina on Monday, weather forecasters advising PSEG Long Island pointed to computer models that showed damaging impacts from any number of potential tracks.

By Sunday, PSEG officials had already begun enacting a plan to bring as many as 2,500 workers from the Midwest and South to help restore what one top official predicted could be upward of 400,000 outages. Some 1,600 responded and were on their way.

Equipment was amassed at emergency staging areas in Bethpage and Brentwood, hotels were reserved for potentially thousands of line workers from as far away as Kentucky, and PSEG enacted an all-hands-on-deck emergency plan that predicted significant damage. “We’re planning for the worst,” said PSEG Long Island president and chief operating officer Dan Eichhorn on Monday afternoon.

But within hours, cracks in that planning began to show. PSEG, which serves 1.1 million customers on the Island and the Rockaways, saw an almost complete breakdown of its communication systems, rendering almost useless the more than $1 billion in ratepayer and taxpayer-funded upgrades to computer systems, telecom networks, its website and text-in outage system, smart meters and the regional grid.

With more than 420,000 customers in the dark, PSEG found itself unable to field the deluge of customer contacts seeking to report outages and get information on restorations through all that expensive new equipment.

But it wasn’t just the inability to field calls early in the crisis that has drawn criticism. Two days after the storm, more than 100,000 customers still remained without power and many, such as Jericho homeowner Jeff Mollins, could not comprehend how the utility could fail to respond to urgent requests to de-energize live wires, mostly tangled in thousands of downed trees and many “sizzling” on the ground, as Mollins said.

With the onslaught of Isaias, PSEG saw more than six years of planning and assurances of readiness since taking over operation of the power grid from the Long Island Power Authority put to the test. And based on the early review of ratepayers and public officials from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on down, PSEG failed the test.

Even LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone, while praising PSEG’s decision to call in 1,600 workers early, said PSEG’s communication performance was “unacceptable.”

Ratepayers had a harsher assessment.

“This is the worst, they are worse than LIPA is,” said Gina Marabella of Commack, who spent hours with her special needs daughter attempting to get through to PSEG, to no avail. Her power was restored Thursday, but many in her neighborhood remained out.

Dorothy Wohl of Commack said that while PSEG surely had communications problems to contend with, the problems for her neighborhood go far beyond it.

“If the wind blows in the wrong direction, we’re the first to go out,” she said Friday, with her power still out and PSEG telling her it wouldn’t be restored until late Saturday night. “It’s a communication problem but it’s also an infrastructure problem,” she said.

She noted she was affected by a 2018 microburst that left neighbors to cut down trees themselves after waiting in vain for the utility. She was out for more than two weeks during Sandy. “It’s just exhausting.”

Exactly what went wrong will be the focus of multiple investigations and public hearings by state and local governments, including one requested by Cuomo for the state Department of Public Service, and public hearings before the Republican-controlled Nassau County Legislature as soon as Aug. 13. Six Democratic state senators have asked Attorney General Letitia James to launch a probe. LIPA is hiring an outside firm to conduct an independent review of PSEG's response.

Interviews with PSEG and LIPA executives, public officials and angry customers indicate that for all its planning, PSEG did not prepare for the one critical element of the storm it had yet to experience through the dozens of smaller storms it has fielded during its tenure: a deluge of incoming customer calls, texts and attempts to access its website and mobile app.

That besieged the utility and sent communications links crashing, rendering its customer interface relatively useless even as late as Thursday. One PSEG official, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged the utility had expected customers to rely on automated services to report outages, rather than seeking customer service reps, but after a day of no responses “many” demanded to talk to a live person.

Homeowner Mollins had good reason to reach a live person for a response.

“There was a fire in my backyard and all they had to do was come over and turn the power off,” but PSEG took two days to respond, said Mollins, who Thursday morning continued to monitor a live wire in his yard. Fire departments, police and anxious neighbors all stood by unable to help because of his inability to get through to PSEG and have the power turned off. A PSEG surveyor came by, he said, took notes and left.

“They never even called me back,” Mollins said. “LIPA was thrown off Long Island because they did such a bad job with Sandy. This is worse. It’s a travesty.” He said the wire was still sparking Friday night.

LIPA’s Falcone said PSEG took the right course by working early to get commitments from out-of-state crews to come to Long Island even as the storm was bearing down. Many were at work just hours after Isaias felled thousands of giant trees and tree limbs with winds up to 80 miles per hour, and more were due to arrive in the days that followed.

“They aggressively staffed and that has made all the difference,” he said.

PSEG president Eichhorn said planning efforts “really saved us” in working to restore outages. “If we didn’t make that decision on Saturday and Sunday to ask for 2,500, we would have been in a world of hurt now,” he said Thursday. He emphasized that communication problems didn’t hamper the company’s ability to respond to outages.

PSEG has boasted for years about the larger “box” it cuts around trees and other possible power-line obstructions as it has cut its way across Long Island since 2014. When it finishes one four-year cycle of regular and aggressive tree trimming, it starts all over again, until all the lines are clear, at a cost of millions of dollars a year.

And yet trees and tree limbs were the primary culprit in taking out power to customers in the hours and days since Isaias hit. Hempstead alone saw some 300 fallen trees or large limbs obstructing roadways and taking down power lines. It was also one of the worst hit regions when winds began blowing on Tuesday, well in advance of the actual storm.

Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin spent a long afternoon and evening on Tuesday surveying the damage himself in the town, arriving home at 9 p.m. What he saw shocked him, but that didn’t compare to the outrage that followed on discovering tens of thousands of constituents could not get through the PSEG by phone, that its website showing the state of outages wasn’t updating or even working, unable to give accurate restoration times, and that customers couldn’t get through to PSEG on the telephone, via its much-touted text-in outage system, or even report an outage on its website.

“It’s astonishing after what we’ve gone through and the alleged investment [made after superstorm Sandy] to make sure we didn’t” experience the same problems, Clavin said. “This was a test, and they failed.”

Early on in its tenure, PSEG pushed for a $30 million investment in a new outage management system that would not only give customers an accurate, real-time picture of outages as they occurred, it also would help the company and crews behind the scenes manage the system and properly deploy resources.

While Eichhorn said it remained a valuable resource behind the scenes, an outage map that customers see was rarely up to date. As late as this past Thursday, the system was still showing an inaccurate number of total outages — 246,646, when the company president the day before said the number was 176,000.

Asked about the 215,173 listed on the company’s outage website, Eichhorn said Friday that an unspecified number are outages that occurred since the main outage on Tuesday. He said the larger number also may include an unspecified number of duplicates, for instance, if a customer calls in an outage more than once.

PSEG spokeswoman Ashley Chauvin claimed one reason the outage map lagged the real-time data was because restoration was “progressing faster than can be displayed” on the outage map due to the large number of outside workers — some 2,000 — repairing the grid.

Marabella of Commack wasn’t buying it, saying if the $30 million spent was intended to satisfy customers about current outages and planned restorations. “They got ripped off.”

By all measures, the damage from Isaias was an outsize job. Two interconnections for power cables from off Long Island suffered damage, as did 19 substations (facilities that step down power from high-voltage plants to lower voltages used in neighborhoods), and dozens of high- and low-voltage transmission lines. Most were repaired within the first two days of the storm.

Meanwhile, PSEG’s sister company, PSE&G, which has around twice the number of customers as does LIPA and where Eichhorn continues to serve as chief customer officer, did not experience any of the technical problems that the Long Island division did.

“PSE&G in New Jersey has very similar systems,” Eichhorn said, but had only “minor” technical issues.

PSEG accurately predicted the outage count in the lead-up to the storm — up to 400,000 customers, Eichhorn said on Monday, even as Long Island missed the brunt of Isaias as it tracked west. Little rain affected the area, preventing the ground from being soaked and wetting leafy trees, which are more easily pulled down by high winds.

“Those systems were greatly justified,” Eichhorn said. “The implementation of those systems has been a plus to customers on LI. Without a doubt those systems well worth the investment.”

This week’s issues, he added, “tend to be outside of those systems,” citing Verizon and other systems. 

“In today’s world none of these systems are stand-alone,” Eichhorn explained, elaborating that the outage management system, for instance, relies on an operable telecom and internet network. “If the internet is slower, interaction” with other devices will be impacted. And when calls to the system mount at the height of the storm, even millisecond delays can add up — and overload the system.

PSEG phone lines are fed by three Verizon circuits, which Eichhorn said became overloaded during the storm. The average daily call volume is 10,000. The day after the storm calls rocketed to 129,000 for the day. The system, Eichhorn said, is supposed to automatically open up additional circuits when the lines become overloaded, but that didn’t happen properly. He said much of that bottleneck was reduced in subsequent days.

Verizon, while declining to discuss PSEG’s problems specifically, indicated that one of the issues for cellphone network problems overall was due to lack of power on certain smaller networks, which do not have battery backups.

“This means in order to provide crucial communications services we rely on commercial power,” spokesman David Weissmann said. “Our network is operating as designed; however, until commercial power is restored, our coverage and capacity will remain impacted.”

Eichhorn did acknowledge there were problems with other systems, including those that allow customers to simply text the word “out” on their phones to a special PSEG number. In past storms that system reduced call volume and helped populate the outage map accurately. This week, customers were told to call a telephone line that either had a busy signal or failed to allow them to report. 

PSEG just this year completed a $730 million storm hardening paid for by U.S. taxpayers through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a giant investment that allowed the company to upgrade to stronger poles — sometimes to neighborhood outrage — and automate hundreds of miles of electric lines with so-called sectionalizers, which allow the company to isolate outages when damage occurs and reroute power around those outages.

Eichhorn said that investment paid off. FEMA-funded hardening of those 1,000 miles was estimated, before the storm, to reduce outages by 45%.

“This storm likely would have been much worse if not for the tree-trimming, the federal grant work, pole inspections and replacing older poles,” he said. “We’d be looking at something much closer to Sandy,” which saw devastating flooding and wind-toppled trees, knocking out power to more than 1 million ratepayers and requiring weeks to fully restore. Isaias, by contrast, was mostly a windstorm.

PSEG is also more than halfway through a smart-meter replacement program that gave it more information than ever about the status of each customer's electric service, providing instant notification when power was out. These new smart meters — more than 600,000 of which are already installed — give PSEG real-time data about each customer's electric use. It’s costing customers more than $250 million to buy and install the meters in a four-year rollout that’s ahead of schedule.

When the rollout is complete in the next one or two years, Eichhorn said, “we will tell you when your power is out,” obviating the need for customers to ever call in an outage.

One automated system that appeared to be working without a hitch during the week was for Marabella perhaps the greatest source of frustration.

“The one time I did get through to PSEG, the automated voice said, ‘Your bill is due in three days. Would you like to pay it?’” Marabella said. Her response: “Absolutely not!”

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