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Fire Island phone service still crippled

Streets of Ocean Beach on Fire Island were

Streets of Ocean Beach on Fire Island were flooded by superstorm Sandy. (Oct. 31, 2012) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Fire Island's telephone and Internet service remains crippled, three months after superstorm Sandy flooded underground lines and above-ground equipment, officials say.

The spotty service is less of a concern during winter, when about 400 people live there. But when the weather warms and tens of thousands of visitors arrive by ferry each weekend, residents and first responders worry that damaged communications could create serious problems in emergencies or for people trying to make 911 calls.

Verizon, which provides the bulk of the Island's service, is working to get communications restored after saltwater ruined equipment, company spokesman John Bonomo said in an email.

"We are confident that we will have full services in place for the summer season," he said in the email. "We have been, and will continue to be, in communications with town/village officials along the way as we implement our plans."

But the island's fire officials said the lack of service is an immediate concern.

At the Ocean Beach firehouse, only one of about six phone numbers works, said first assistant chief Ian Levine.

Point O' Woods Fire Department chief Robert Bragg said his community hasn't had landline phone service since the storm slammed ashore on Oct. 29.

"When summer comes, it's going to be an issue," Bragg said. "They're not giving us any restoration timetable at this point."

And with repairs in progress for storm-damaged homes, the island is teeming with workers rebuilding homes and restoring services to them.

"We maybe do on average 10 [service] calls for the whole winter," Levine said. "Now we're doing 15 calls a month because it's busy. There are a lot more people out here working."

For now, those without reliable landlines rely on cellphones, he said. But cell service is notoriously poor when summer revelers swarm the island -- especially with the proliferation of data-guzzling smartphones.

"The cell service during the summer is spotty to begin with," said Dominic Bertucci, chief of the Kismet Fire Department. "It's really hard to get a signal out there sometimes. It's scary."

Saltaire officials say Verizon Internet and phone service was bad before the storm, but now, "very often it's nonexistent," village administrator Mario Posillico said.

"Even before the storm, the amount of service available to residents was limited, the number of DSL customers they could handle was exceeded by the demand," Mayor Robert Cox said. "The storm compounded that. What we fear is when everyone comes back in the summer it's going to completely overwhelm the system."

In July, the village wrote to the state Public Service Commission about Verizon's service, complaining the "lack of proper or sufficient equipment and infrastructure has resulted in numerous and frequent service outages, lack or interruption of service and the inability or refusal of [Verizon] to provide service to new customers."

Bonomo said, "Verizon consistently provides a high-quality level of service to Long Island residents and its communities."

Verizon estimates restoration costs "to be about $1 billion" systemwide for restoration in affected areas, Bonomo said. The company had not split out the cost to repair "any one community," he added.

Business owners are nervous, too. Ocean Beach Mayor James Mallott, who owns the Albatross restaurant, said he will probably have to invest in a point-of-sale system that does not rely on the Internet.

"Seventy percent of your business now is credit cards," Mallott said, "so it's a huge problem for everybody over there."


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