Superstorm Sandy dealt a prolonged and devastating blow to the Long Island electric system Monday, knocking out power to well over half LIPA's customer base and leaving officials pessimistic that the grid would be fully restored anytime soon.
The more than 612,000 customers who were without power about 8:10 p.m. last night had already exceeded the number of customers left in the dark during last year's Tropical Storm Irene, and was close to approaching the record 750,000 left without power during 1985's Hurricane Gloria. The utility serves more than 1.1 million customers.
"It's every bit as bad as we expected it could be," LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey said last night. "Customers should expect quite a long restoration" period, at least the seven to 10 days LIPA had projected before the storm.
The superstorm, a hybrid of a hurricane and a nor'easter, pounded the electric system with flooding, powerful winds and fallen trees. In the five boroughs of New York, more than 156,000 customers of Con Edison were without power by 7:30 p.m., and in New Jersey Gov. Christie listed about 350,000 outages by 6 p.m.
LIPA has already contracted for 1,250 outside crews to help in the restoration, but Hervey said the authority will work to secure more than twice that -- 3,000. The problem remains finding the workers. Sandy's damage has been so widespread, geographically and structurally, that few utilities are releasing workers.
"This is going to be a very, very large event," said Hervey, adding he expects the number of outages to keep "climbing all night long."
In addition to the anticipated outages on the distribution system of wires to customers' homes and businesses, Sandy also damaged to several transmission lines, Hervey said.
And the damage wasn't over. Hervey said the storm's winds were expected to continue Tuesday. "We're going to continue to take some damage for the next several hours," he said last night.
Worse still, there were no LIPA crews out fixing damage or even assessing the damage last night. That's because conditions were still so dangerous that LIPA doesn't expect to assign workers until 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Hervey said that when crews are assigned, they will work on transmission lines first -- these are the large, high-voltage lines that bring power from plants and other sources into substations, from where they are then distributed to customers. Those jobs can be time consuming, but they tend to get more customers back on line at a time.
Long Islanders showed patience last night.
"It is what it is," said Melissa Ryzner of Woodmere, who lost power Monday at sunset. The entire neighborhood went "pitch black," she said.
She took her time calling LIPA, and wasn't expecting crews to venture out into the night, during the storm, to restore power. "There's nothing we can do about it," she said. "Tomorrow morning I may feel totally different about it."
LIPA's bolstered communication system is working, Hervey said, but call volume has stressed telephone and cellular networks, he said. LIPA also has been flooded with requests for customers signing up for its text messaging outage system.
For LIPA, the pressure was on. The head of the state Public Service Commission was on hand Monday, monitoring its progress as the utility began applying the painful lessons it learned from 2011.
Garry Brown, chairman of the Public Service Commission, is monitoring LIPA's activities through the storm at the request of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The commission has no authority over LIPA, but it is overseeing a comprehensive audit of the authority. LIPA has its own staff in the state emergency response center in Albany for the first time.
LIPA was applying the lessons it learned from Irene to alter its systems. It has been communicating with public officials and customers since last Friday, using new procedures and communications capability. Customers have been alerting LIPA through smartphone texting, email and telephone outreach, and there have been daily conference calls with mayors and other leaders.
Much of the early damage from Sandy involved "whole trees coming over or large branches coming down on the lines," Hervey said. Crews had been out and working during the early stages ofthe storm, he said, but retreated when conditions worsened.
LIPA set up a staging area at Bethpage State Park to process new crews and assign work. It may set upadditional staging areas as needed, he said.
LIPA crews trimmed trees through the weekend, he said.
PSEG, the company that will take over management of the LIPA grid in 2014, will not be on the ground with LIPA and National Grid crews, Hervey said. While there are some Lockheed Martin contractors here (Lockheed is a partner with PSEG on the LIPA contract), PSEG itself is dealing with a large potential impact in its home base of New Jersey, so the decision was made to commit its full resources there, Hervey said.
Hervey urged customers to assume that any downed wire is live and to avoid it. The number to report an outage or downed wire is 800-490-0075.