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About 176,000 still without power, LIRR partially restored after Isaias

Tens of thousands are still without power after Tropical Storm Isaias battered Long Island. Many PSEG Long Island customers are expressing frustration over the inability to get in touch with the company. Officials want an investigation. Cecilia Dowd has the story. Credit: Howard Schnapp

This story was reported by Mark Harrington, Robert Brodsky, Matthew Chayes, Rachelle Blinder, Candice Ferrette, Alfonso A. Castillo, Joan Gralla, Keldy Ortiz, David Olson, Deborah s. Morris, Carl MacGowan, Nicholas Spangler, Jean-Paul Salamanca and Ted Phillips. It was written by Brodsky.

Long Island began an arduous cleanup Wednesday, a day after Tropical Storm Isaias tore through the region, toppling hundreds of trees, downing power lines, forcing a shutdown of the Long Island Rail Road and causing widespread outages to more than a third of all Nassau and Suffolk residents.

PSEG Long Island faced a tidal wave of criticism. Politicians and residents said the utility was unprepared, was slow to restore power and failed to communicate with frustrated customers. Tens of thousands of Long Island homeowners were forced to spend a second consecutive night sweltering in the dark, without access to electricity or air conditioning, even as temperatures in the region topped 90 degrees.

Wednesday afternoon, PSEG's president Dan Eichhorn said the utility had restored service to 244,000 customers while 176,000 others were still without power. Its website, however, at 9 p.m. had not updated to that number, still showing 281,000 outages. 

Eichhorn said 75,000 to 100,000 of those still without power could be restored by Thursday evening, with the rest back on line by the end of day Saturday.

The promises were insufficient for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Wednesday, who ordered the state Department of Public Service to investigate the “unacceptable” performance of six utility companies, including PSEG and Con Edison in New York City.

Cuomo also declared a state of emergency for Long Island, along with 10 other counties, allowing state agencies to provide direct support to local governments. 

"We're taking an all-hands-on-deck approach and activating every resource at our disposal to expedite communities' recovery from the impacts of Tropical Storm Isaias," Cuomo said. 

Power struggle

The anger and frustration was visceral across the island. 

A contingent of Democratic state senators held a Wednesday morning news conference, calling on Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the utility's response, while Nassau County Executive Laura Curran sent a blistering letter to Eichhorn, arguing that PSEG's "failures" should have been corrected after superstorm Sandy

"When we have a little breathing room we will figure out what went wrong," Curran said at a briefing in Bethpage. "It is crucial that people can communicate these situations to the utility and that’s something that has not happened with this storm."

During an online news conference, Eichhorn defended the company's performance, in which a total of 420,000 customers lost power.

He called the storm “one of the biggest we had in recent years — something we expected and we think planned for well.”

Eichhorn said while the damage to the system was extensive "we are going to work as quickly and as safely as possible until every last customer is back."

And he attributed communication issues — residents complained about an inability to get agents on the phone or being able to get a timeline for power restoration — to overloaded Verizon circuits. PSEG re ceived upward of 11,000 calls an hour Wednesday, he said.

A Verizon spokesman, asked to comment on Eichhorn's statements, said: "As customer issues have arisen, we’ve been working around the clock to resolve them and have deployed portable network assets in areas where coverage and capacity have been impacted by commercial power outages."

Tiffany Lochan of Smithtown said she’s on PSEG’s critical care list for restoration priority because of two children with cystic fibrosis. The children can get severely dehydrated if they sweat, have critical air-clearance vests that are electric powered, nebulizers to help with breathing and medicine that needs to be refrigerated, Lochan said. All are idle with the power off.

Lochan, a nurse, said she called PSEG multiple times, spent more than an hour on hold, and even tried calling overnight.

“You can’t get anybody on the phone,” she said. “And any time you text for an update it says no updates available. It’s a dead end.”

Eichhorn said the utility was in the process of responding to customers with urgent medical-equipment need for electrical service. "If we don’t get response, we go out to them," he said.

Brentwood’s Roberto Clemente Park became a respite Wednesday for some of those without power seeking a break from the blistering heat.

Ivania Castellón, 26, of Central Islip, said with the power in her Central Islip home out since 2 p.m. Tuesday, she and her father, Mauro Castellón, 61, have “been opening the windows trying to keep it cool” and drinking a lot of water. But that wasn’t enough, so they headed to Clemente Park to sit in the shade at a picnic bench.

“What else is there?” she said.

Michelle Varela, 34, of Roosevelt, and Margarita Sanchez, 36, of Brentwood, drank cold cans of Coca-Cola they pulled from a cooler and prepared to eat shrimp they bought at a market while the six children between them played nearby.

Sanchez said the group planned to stay at the park “until they kick us out. We don’t want to go home. It’s very hot.”

The cleanup begins

Across the region, village, city and county officials began clearing downed trees, fallen electrical wires and scattered debris that littered the area after Isaias swept through with wind gusts of nearly 80 mph.

The storm forced the LIRR to stop — delays that continued on several lines Wednesday — while buses, subways and airlines were forced to cancel or scale down service. Dozens of parks, beaches, pools and golf courses remained closed Wednesday due to a lack of power or downed trees while many key arteries were inaccessible because of fallen wires.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Isaias “packed an incredible wallop,” even as the region was largely spared major flooding.

“This was a tropical storm not expected to deliver that great of a punch and it clearly did," Bellone said. "This hit us hard."

County phone lines were “overwhelmed with calls,” Bellone said. The call volume was “enormous,” with the fire, rescue and emergency services department reporting a 400% increase in calls, he said. 

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said one person died in Queens from a fallen tree while another was seriously injured in Brooklyn. 

"Job one is to make sure there’s no additional danger to human life," de Blasio said.

From Elmont to Montauk, the damage was extensive.

Brookhaven officials began removing “hundreds if not thousands” of downed trees, said town spokesman Kevin Molloy.

Smithtown Town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said the area looked “like a war zone" on Wednesday. “You would turn around to look down the street and five seconds later another tree was down,” she said. 

Even cemeteries had cleaning to do.

“We had several large trees that came down,” said Sue Jehlen, director of Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale. “We have some roads that are blocked.” 

Tragedy avoided but frustration brewing

Alicia Vasile is grateful that tragedy was avoided Tuesday when a tree crashed through the roof of her Torwood Court home in Huntington Station, taking electrical wires with it. Her son Joseph, 14, was home alone but took a well-timed break. 

“By the grace of God, he had gone to the bathroom and was in the back of the house when the tree landed on the house,” Vasile said. “He ran out of the house with no shoes or shirt.”

While Vasile is thankful her son is safe, she's frustrated that repairs cannot yet begin because she's been unable to receive a call back from PSEG, which must first remove the wires.

“There’s a gaping hole in my roof and nothing can be done,” she said. “The living room is starting to buckle even more because of the weight of the tree.”

Vasile and her family will stay at a hotel Wednesday and insurance will provide temporary housing. But all she really wants is to go home — or at least move toward that goal.

“They have made my situation so much worse,” Vasile said. “We have not been able to start the process of getting our life back.”

Tips on cleaning up after a storm:

• Remove any broken-but-hanging branches as soon as possible; they can cause more damage (both to tree and nearby structures) if they fall on their own.

• Be sure to clean up any fallen fruits and vegetables, lest they invite insects, rodents and disease.

• Only hire qualified and licensed tree experts or arborists to work on your property.

• Don't ever climb a ladder when pruning. Don't prune anything above your head. Don't climb trees to reach broken branches. And take care to ensure branches that you're trimming don't snap back and hit you.

Jessica Damiano

Damage to the System

Off-island power cable Interconnections: 2 damaged, 2 restored

Substations: 19 damaged, 17 restored

Large (138,000 volts) transmission lines: 8 damaged, 5 restored

69,000-volt transmission circuits: 30 damaged, 14 restored

Smaller transmission systems (23,000-volt and 33,000-volt): 21 damaged, 10 restored

Source: PSEG Long Island

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