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Assessing LIPA's ownership of future hurricanes

PSEG-LI's customer satisfaction score plummeted after the company's

PSEG-LI's customer satisfaction score plummeted after the company's response to Tropical Storm Isaias. Credit: James Carbone

As a professional meteorologist and broadcaster for nearly 40 years, and having grown up in Mississippi alongside the Gulf of Mexico, I know something about severe weather.

And after a lifetime watching the aftermath of storms, I also know something about how politicians and bureaucracies respond to them. The best responses keep what works and fix what doesn’t. The worst ones keep repeating the same mistakes, over and over.

As I listened to a recent public hearing on PSEG Long Island’s response and communications failures after Tropical Storm Isaias, I felt a familiar worry creep up. The focus of the hearing was PSEG LI’s performance on Long Island in the face of severe weather and, based on the public comments of the Long Island Power Authority chief executive, whether operation of the region’s energy grid should be handed back to LIPA.

For anyone who remembers LIPA’s handling of Superstorm Sandy, that should set off alarm bells.

In 2012, four weeks before Sandy, I participated in a town hall meeting on hurricane preparedness conducted in a Republic Airport hangar; both county executives attended as did the then-acting chief executive of LIPA, Michael Hervey. He told the audience LIPA was fully prepared for any eventuality. He insisted that LIPA was staffed and organized to confront and defeat any storm.

It wasn’t.

In the terrible days that would follow Sandy, I remember that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was forced to send his key officials to essentially live at LIPA’s headquarters, taking over from a bureaucracy that was unable to put the power back on. Hervey would depart soon after.

Fast forward to LIPA suggesting that PSEG LI’s communications failures compel it to take the keys back and operate the energy grid.

But the idea that we would go back to a public authority that had neither the means, the motivation nor the mission to connect with Long Islanders during times of crisis, strikes me as a failure just waiting in incubation.

I would argue that Cuomo got it right after Sandy when he took LIPA out of the equation and made the private sector responsible for operating the grid. If you get it right, you are incentivized. If you get it wrong, you will be financially punished.

But since a takeover is being publicly considered by LIPA’s leadership, it begs a number of questions. What will the cost be to the ratepayer for LIPA to reinvent what PSEG LI has put into place over the last decade? How much will LIPA pay to ensure that PSEG LI’s blackout response system works better? What would that even look like?

If LIPA is given back the job of actually running the system, at some time in its future it will be faced with a hurricane whose impact no one accurately forecast despite the best technology. Maybe it will be a sudden Category 5, fueled more than expected by warm waters. Maybe it will race up from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at a shocking 50 mph. Maybe it will lurch suddenly west and instead of skirting Montauk it barrels up Route 110.

And then yet another public committee will be convened to study LIPA’s failure in getting the power back. And without the slightest hint of irony, someone will make the recommendation that we go back to the PSEG LI model.

My recommendation: PSEG LI acknowledges its failures and confirms its commitment to the region, LIPA invokes financial penalties for the failures, PSEG LI fixes the problem and does it before our next storm.

Bill Evans, co-owner of WLNG 92.1 FM in Sag Harbor, is a former senior meteorologist at WABC-TV.