November 13, 2012

Long Islanders fume over utility's slow storm response

Tens of thousands of Long Island Power Authority customers remain in the dark 2 weeks after the storm.

Frank Eltman and Michael Virtanen/Associated Press

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. — Priscilla Niemiera has a message for officials at the Long Island Power Authority.

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A Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) truck is seen in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the borough of Queens, New York, Monday, Nov.12, 2012, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. More than 70,000 customers of Long Island Power Authority in New York were without electricity Monday, two weeks after Superstorm Sandy struck. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

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A crew with Salt River Project of Arizona (SRP) works on replacing a pole on a sand and debris-covered street in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the borough of Queens, New York, Monday, Nov.12, 2012, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. SRP is one of several out of the region utility companies aiding local utilities. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

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"I'd tell them, get off your rear end and do your job," the 68-year-old Seaford resident said. Well, she would if she could get in touch with anyone.

Over the last two weeks since she lost power from Superstorm Sandy, she says, "every time I called they hung up on me."

While most utilities have restored electricity to nearly all their customers, LIPA still has tens of thousands of customers in the dark.

The company said that the storm was worse than anyone could have imagined and that it didn't just damage outdoor electrical lines; it caused flooding that touched home and business breaker boxes. It acknowledged that an outdated computer system for keeping customers notified has added to people's frustration.

But some say the government-run utility should have seen it coming. It was recently criticized in a withering state report for lax preparation ahead of last year's Hurricane Irene and for the 25-year-old computer system used to pinpoint outages and update customers.

"It's antiquated. I think they're negligent," said Phil Glickman, a retired Wall Street executive from South Bellmore who waited 11 days to get electricity back.

LIPA has restored power to more than 1.1 million homes and offices. About 19,000 customers were still waiting for the lights to come back early Tuesday.

The utility says there also are some along Long Island's south shore and Rockaway Peninsula that had water damage to electrical panels and wiring, so their service can't be restored without an inspection and possibly repairs.

At its peak, the storm knocked out power to 8.5 million customers in 10 states, with New York and New Jersey bearing the brunt. Those outages have been nearly erased, though Consolidated Edison, the chief utility in New York City, has cited problems similar to LIPA's, saying about 16,300 customers in flooded areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island can't get service until their internal electrical equipment is repaired, tested and certified.

Niemiera, whose finished basement in Seaford flooded, said her house needs to be inspected and she can't get any answers. "I think LIPA should be broken up into small companies and it shouldn't be a monopoly anymore because this is every single time we have a disaster. And then they raise the rates. We're paying very high rates. We're paying high taxes, high electric. Everything," she said.

LIPA, whose board is chosen by the governor and lawmakers, contracts with National Grid for service and maintenance. Last year, its board chose a new contractor, New Jersey's Public Service Enterprise Group, which will take over in 2014. Gov. Andrew Cuomo criticized the storm response of all New York utilities in the region, saying their management had failed consumers.

Asked Monday about LIPA board vacancies he hasn't filled and whether he takes responsibility for what's happening there, Cuomo called the authority a holding company that became "an intergovernmental political organization." He said National Grid was the actual Long Island power provider, one of the monopolistic state-regulated utilities. "They're going to be held accountable," he said, citing lack of communication and preparation and even proposing they consider rebates instead of rate hikes.

A state report criticized LIPA in June for poor customer communications after Irene last year and for insufficient tree trimming. The Department of Public Service noted major problems in telling customers estimated power-restoration times, faulting its computer system, which a consultant had found deficient back in 2006.

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