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PSEG's bout against Isaias

PSEG workers work on restoring power in front

PSEG workers work on restoring power in front of a home on Smith Road in Lake Ronkonkoma on Aug. 4, 2020, after strong winds knocked out power. Credit: James Carbone

In boxing there is a famed maxim describing the difference between how we hope to handle a challenge, and how we actually handle it: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

PSEG had a plan, for how to prepare for storms, how to communicate with customers about outages, how residents could report them, and when to expect restoration. But Tuesday, the New Jersey-based company that has run the utility operations for the Long Island Power Authority since National Grid’s 2014 debacle with superstorm Sandy got punched in the mouth.

Isaias hit Long Island hard, with winds near hurricane strength, but PSEG was ready for it in some ways. Extra crews were in position. The utility’s estimate that 200,000 to 400,000 customers would lose power was right on, as outages peaked around 400,000. Smart meters installed for more than half of LIPA’s customers by PSEG, along with other monitors, informed the company of most service interruptions. Crews were quickly dispatched, and have been making strong progress.

But on the communications end, PSEG took a roundhouse to the chin that left it clawing at the ropes.

Customers trying to call in to report outages, or dangerous downed lines, could not get through. Texters had similar troubles, as did those trying to report trouble online. Nothing worked, and concerns that couldn’t be communicated turned to rage.

Company officials say much of the problem was with telecommunications provider Verizon, which experienced a variety of failures. Power customers don’t care. Making sure vendors can provide the services PSEG needs is PSEG’s responsibility. The reporting system that ratepayers have funded through the nose should have worked.

Communications aside, it’s too soon to say how PSEG did in preparing for this storm, and in how quickly it restored the damage. A punch taken in the mouth does not always lead to a loss.

Every politician on Long Island is calling for an investigation of PSEG’s preparation and response to the damage from Isaias. The company and LIPA are being condemned because the power went out and is not back on. The vitriol on that front seems premature but their constituents are angry.

A post-storm post mortem is necessary: we need to know what went right and wrong, whether pre-storm tree trimming and maintenance were adequate, and whether post-storm response was competent. We also need to know that, if PSEG does not meet the performance metrics its significant annual bonuses are based on, those bonuses won’t be paid by LIPA. And we need an explanation of why the communications system failed, and how that failure will be addressed.

PSEG had swagger about how good it would be when the big day came. And it can’t be counted out yet. But the company’s first big Long Island bout with Mother Nature has left its reputation bloodied, and to stage a comeback, it’s going to have to finish very strong.

— The editorial board