Frustration Mounts About Lingering Power Outages

By Tom Hays and Frank Eltman
|  Friday, Nov 9, 2012  |  Updated 8:42 AM EDT
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Residents still in the dark on Long Island question the readiness of the Long Island Power Authority before Sandy. Brynn Gingras has more.

Residents still in the dark on Long Island question the readiness of the Long Island Power Authority before Sandy. Brynn Gingras has more.

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Vincent Pina finally saw a couple of utility trucks coming down his street Thursday and started to wave in anticipation. But they just cruised past his house and kept on going.

He hung his head in resignation.

"The thing that gets me the most is that there is no flood damage. I don't have any branches down. I have no wires down," said the Long Islander, who put a hand-painted sign out front that read: "Still No Power."

So why, he wondered, was it taking so long to get electricity?

A week and a half after Sandy slammed the coast and inflicted tens of billions of dollars in damage, hundreds of thousands of customers in New York and New Jersey are still waiting for the electricity to come back on, and lots of cold and tired people are losing patience. Some are demanding investigations of utilities they say aren't working fast enough.

An angry Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the calls for an investigation Thursday, ripping the utilities as unprepared and badly managed.

"Privately I have used language my daughters couldn't hear," he fumed. He added: "It's unacceptable the longer it goes on because the longer it goes on, people's suffering is worse."

The power companies have said they are dealing with damage unprecedented in its scope and doing the best they can. And there is no denying the magnitude of what they have done: At the peak, more than 8.5 million homes and businesses across 21 states lost power. As of Thursday, that was down to about 750,000, almost entirely in New York and New Jersey.

And that's after a nor'easter overnight knocked out power to more than 200,000 customers in New York and New Jersey, erasing some of the progress made by utility crews.

"We lost power last week, just got it back for a day or two, and now we lost it again," said John Monticello of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "Every day it's the same now: Turn on the gas burner for heat. Instant coffee. Use the iPad to find out what's going on in the rest of the world."

Sandy killed more than 70 people in the tri-state.

The power industry's defenders have pointed out that Sandy was huge and hit the nation's most densely populated corridor. By the Energy Department's reckoning, it left more people in the dark than any other storm in U.S. history.

It did more than knock down power lines; it flooded switching stations and substations, forcing workers to take apart hundreds of intricate components, clean them, replace some of them, rewire others and put it all back together. Only after these stations are re-energized can workers go out and repair lines.

In Rockaway Beach in Queens, crews worked Thursday to inspect the flooded, muck-filled utility tunnels that carry current. Before they descended into the manholes, Ed Sellman used a 3,400-gallon vacuum truck to suck up the sand coating the subterranean cables.

"We try to get it clean, so when they go down there to do the inspections, they can see and aren't working in mud like pigs," Sellman said.

Around the region, though, customers were frustrated and in some cases furious, complaining that they were being left in the dark about when power would be restored.

Ralph Barone of Staten Island said he saw a Consolidated Edison crew in his neighborhood on Thursday for the first time since Sandy killed the power.

"The problem is that they won't tell you anything about when the electricity will come back," he said. "My wife is freezing. You need a flashlight to use the bathroom. It gets old."

Barone works assembling meters for another power company, "so I understand it's a big job," he said. "But nine days is too long."

Cuomo, a Democrat, blasted the utilities as "nameless, faceless" monopolies that weren't up to the job, complaining: "They ran out of poles, believe it or not. ... How do you run out of poles?"

"The management has failed the consumers. It is just that simple," said Cuomo, whose power at his own home in the suburbs has been on and off.

In contrast, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie praised the utilities, saying he expected all of the state to have power back by early Sunday. New Jersey had about 400,000 power outages on Thursday.

"The villain in this case is Hurricane Sandy," Christie said.

On Long Island, where more than 262,000 customers were without power and tempers were rising, Long Island Power Authority spokesman Mark Gross would not comment on the criticism, saying only that the utility is focused on restoring power.

Con Edison's chairman and CEO, Kevin Burke, said Thursday that he's "very sorry that so many people are suffering because their lights are out."

For some, it's worse. A 59-year-old Hempstead woman was killed Thursday afternoon when she tried to cross an intersection where the traffic light was off due to an electricity outage.

The Edison Electric Institute, the industry's main lobbying group, has called restoring power in Sandy's wake the "single biggest task the utility industry has ever faced." Brian Wolff, EEI senior vice president, said 67,000 utility workers from all around the country are on the job.

"An hour without power is too long. Power is an essential commodity. Our people get that. We are putting every resource to restoring power," he said. But he added, "This was not a minor event."

Even David Wright, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, sounded a sympathetic note: "There are limits to what a utility can do. A superstorm is an extraordinary event, and in an extraordinary event you get extraordinary circumstances."

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