Officials Want Military to Take Over Power Restoration on Long Island

Two congressmen from Long Island are asking the White House to send federal employees to Long Island to take the lead role in restoring power to a region where tens of thousands of people remain in the dark 12 days after Superstorm Sandy.

U.S. Reps. Peter King and Steve Israel said they were sending a letter Friday requesting that personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Department assume work of the Long Island Power Authority, whose work after the storm the congressmen called "abysmal." They echoed the criticism expressed earlier by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"When the lights went off in Baghdad and the lights went off in Kabul, it was the Army Corps of Engineers that went into Baghdad and Kabul to turn the lights back on," said Israel, a Democrat. "We don't need to turn the lights back on in Kabul and Baghdad. We need to turn the lights back on in Plainview and Great Neck and the south shore."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and some Army Corps personnel have been on Long Island for more than a week, but King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he wants additional resources sent in.

As of Friday evening, 150,000 homes and businesses on Long Island were without power. LIPA has said as many as 60,000 of those customers were severely damaged by flooding and would require extensive repairs before workers can begin to restore power. Some who had electricity restored in the days following Sandy lost power again after a nor'easter struck Wednesday night.

Sandy knocked out 86 percent of LIPA's customer base, Cuomo said at a news conference Friday.

"I understand the frustration, and I understand the call for more federal help," Cuomo said.

On Friday evening, National Grid said about 95 percent of those affected by the storm would have power restored by the end of the day Tuesday. It said those 95 percent are in non-flood areas. LIPA owns the grid, and National Grid manages it on LIPA's behalf.

LIPA has declined to respond to the withering criticism, but National Grid officials faced angry local reporters at a press conference Friday evening where questions included, "Were you guys a failure?"

"Under the conditions, I think we performed extremely well," said Tom King, president of National Grid US, though he acknowledged that the outages are "unacceptable" to customers. King welcomed more help from the federal government.

The National Grid officials did not say when power would be restored to everyone, but when asked whether it would take as long as Thanksgiving, official John Bruckner called that "not acceptable."

When asked whether they had had enough work crews in place before the storm, the officials repeated that Sandy's force had been unprecedented. "We requested what we believed to be the right amount of crews to take on the event," Bruckner said. "We secured all the crews that we could. ... We wanted more."

They said more than 4,800 linemen were at work on Long Island, with another 1,600 committed to join them.

In Lindenhurst, Joseph O'Brien and his 24-year-old son, DJ, who is in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, tried to cope with another day of no electricity.

"It's rough for him because his wheelchair went under water," said O'Brien, who has remained in the damaged home and keeps warm with a propane heater at night. "I will pay for a new chair. I just can't go online, can't shop, can't leave, no gas. Just everything combined makes it very difficult."

LIPA, which had earlier set a goal of restoring 90 percent of all customers by Wednesday, has declined to respond to the withering criticism. Officials say the company was focused on restoring power and not engaging in a debate with politicians.

Newsday reported Friday that LIPA was warned as long ago as 2006 that it was not prepared to handle a major storm, that it badly needed to replace outdated technology and did not keep up with critical maintenance.

Among the issues the utility was warned about include a 25-year-old computer system not capable of tracking outages, and failures to keep up with basic tasks like replacing rotting poles and trimming trees near power lines, the paper said.

Newsday said a reporter on Thursday visited the Hicksville headquarters of National Grid, which is the company contracted by LIPA to oversee operations, and found engineers tracking outages with highlighters and paper maps.

LIPA chief operating office Michael Hervey told the paper that the company has a new outage manage system but it has not yet been implemented. And he said many of the issues identified in a state report released last June had already been identified by LIPA.

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.

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.

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.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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