There is a timelessness to the frustration of Long Islanders seeing storms decimate the Island’s power grid and watching utility companies fail to respond, scramble to explain and promise to do better. Periodically, each utility is replaced by a new name playing the same old game.
In 1985, Long Islanders were enraged with the Long Island Lighting Co. after Hurricane Gloria, which knocked out power to 750,000 customers. Many endured weeks without service, and former Gov. Mario Cuomo launched an investigation of the communication and restoration failures.
By 2012, when superstorm Sandy hit, the despised LILCO was a memory and the bad guys were the Long Island Power Authority and system operator National Grid. Residents again went weeks without electricity, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo raged at the communication and power-restoration failures, and launched an investigation.
Due to its miserable failure after Sandy, National Grid went away, PSEG LI came in, and LIPA, the public authority which owns the transmission and distribution systems, was reduced in scale.
And in 2020, there’s Isaias, a tropical storm that wasn’t very scary, which makes the extended outages and failure of PSEG LI to communicate and respond difficult to comprehend.
What would happen if Long Island took a direct hit from a major hurricane?
Why can’t Long Island have a power company that can prepare for storms, communicate with those with outages or downed lines, and respond to emergencies with efficient, transparent restorations?
More than 400,000 PSEG LI customers lost power in Isaias, and the company blew its own promises of quick restoration. Many could not get through to the company, could not report live wires, and could not get accurate restoration estimates.
The damage to the system is estimated at $350 million and ratepayers are on the hook for some or all of it. The company says it will give customers who lost food or medicine due to long outages refunds, but has laid out an arduous path for proving the losses. And it seems to be planning to pay the refunds out of ratepayer pockets and not its own profits or large and secret salaries of its PSEG LI executives. Instead, it pledges to take the money out of a potential performance bonus pool of nearly $11 million they’ve already been told they won’t get.
Now, once again, the apres-storm hearings and investigations have begun.
Certainly, we must ask how to make the system more durable, but also how to build a better infrastructure that can keep the lights, phone and internet connected. Verizon and Altice also had major connectivity failures after Isaias, and a poor customer response. As renewables become more prominent, can homes and communities have batteries and solar setups and other ways to meet the need that don’t rely on downed wires? What exactly is LIPA’s oversight role now, and does PSEG LI need more of it?
Long Island deserves better answers. Maybe, after all these years of struggling with the same system and different operators, that means asking better questions.
— The editorial board