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Group Probes Delayed Power Restoration Post Sandy


Another challenge brought on by Superstorm Sandy was the loss of power. Of the million local electric customers on New York's Long Island, about 90 percent lost power. For some it took weeks for the power to come back on, and now New York's utility companies are taking some heat. A special commission appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to look at how those utilities performed after the storm held a hearing last night on Long Island. NPR's Joel Rose was there.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Long Islanders have been waiting weeks for this chance to share their thoughts about the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA.

MATTHEW CORDARO: Simply stated, LIPA just did not perform acceptably during Hurricane Sandy.

PEDRO QUINTINILLA: I lost power for eight days. My family suffered tremendously without power in the cold, as well as thousands of my neighbors.

MARK CUTHBERTSON: This was among other things an epic failure of communication.

SEYMOUR SPIEGEL: We felt cold, dark and abandoned.

ROSE: Matthew Cordaro, Pedro Quintinilla, Mark Cuthbertson and Seymour Spiegel were among dozens of local residents who packed an auditorium on a college campus in Old Westbury, New York. LIPA is a state-owned utility that was set up in the 1980s.

This commission was set up by Governor Andrew Cuomo in the wake of Sandy to investigate how utilities in New York dealt with the storm. Cuomo has made no secret of his disappointment with LIPA. Local officials don't sound too happy, either.

STEVE BELLONE: It was immediately apparent that there had been no advanced planning on how to conduct electrical inspections on a massive scale.

ROSE: Steve Bellone is the executive of Suffolk County on eastern Long Island. Thousands of homes in Suffolk and Nassau County had been flooded by saltwater and had to be inspected by electricians before they could have their power turned back on. Bellone says he got tired of waiting for LIPA officials to come up with a workable plan.

After more than a week, he put the county in charge of deciding when it was safe to switch the power on. Bellone says what little information LIPA released to elected officials and the public often turned out to be wrong.

BELLONE: You can withstand being tortured if you know when it's going to end. It's the not knowing. Every day coming home to a house that's cold and dark, and having no idea when that's going to change. That's torturous.

ROSE: Bellone did praise the efforts of individual utility crews. But he says officials in LIPA headquarters had little idea what was actually happening in the field.

Other witnesses testified that utility officials had difficulty communicating with the roughly 10,000 out-of-town workers who came to Long Island to help out - meaning that some wound up standing around with nothing to do.

LIPA officials weren't on hand to defend their performance. Several top managers stepped down in the weeks after the storm. But there was one member of the public who defended LIPA, Bob Ordan.

BOB ORDAN: I can tell you from observing the LIPA crews in Breezy Point area and in my neighborhood in Lynbrook, coordinating with outside contractors, I think they did an excellent job. They restored our service in about a week. I don't know what people expected. I think LIPA overall responded.

ROSE: Still, Ordan was the exception. The majority of people who testified agreed with the governor that the utility should be reorganized or replaced. No one seems to like the current state of affairs, where LIPA owns the local electrical lines and hires a private company to operate them. But there's no consensus about what to replace it with.

EDWARD NEWMAN: Here's my LIPA plan, create a new entity, a customer-owned cooperative. This has been successful in many other parts of the country. This will allow a fresh start with many benefits.

ROSE: That was licensed electrician Edward Newman.

Former utility executive Matthew Cordaro had a plan of his own.

CORDARO: LIPA should be reorganized as a full-service municipal utility. Under this structure, the utility would be led by professional management.

ROSE: At the end of the night, commission co-chair Benjamin Lawsky said he was impressed by the relatively polite tone of the discussion.

BENJAMIN LAWSKY: People in Long Island were severely impacted, but they're very resilient. And they also care deeply about trying to improve. And, you know, you don't want to get too mired in the past. You have to focus on what went wrong and hold people accountable. But at the same time, you've got to be thinking about what are we going to do for the next one so we don't have to go through this all over again.

ROSE: The tone may not be so reserved next week when the commission holds another hearing on Long Island - and next time, officials from LIPA are expected to attend.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.


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