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Lawmakers Call for Investigation of NYSEG, Con Ed Response to Outages

With some local residents still without power, legislators question utility companies’ response time to Irene.

Local lawmakers are responding to complaints from area residents regarding the widespread power outages incurred from Tropical Storm Irene, calling into question the readiness of utility companies to deal with another large-scale disaster.

Sunday marks one week since Irene blasted its way through the Eastern seaboard and into New York, causing fallen trees, several feet of flooding and extensive power outages throughout areas in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties. One week later, some residents in those areas are still without electricity.

A representative from New York State Electric & Gas reports that just over 300 homes are without power in their Brewster division and 2,900 customers throughout New York State still remain without power.  

According to Con Edison, of its approximated 187,800 customers in New York City and Westchester County who lost power due to the storm, about 32,400 don’t have electricity restored.  

"We've had other storms, but I've never seen such slow response times," said Councilman James Martorano (D-Yorktown).

Martorano and his fellow councilman Nicholas Bianco (R-Patterson) put out a press release Monday calling for an investigation into the readiness of our utility companies and the state of New York’s aging electrical grid.

The crux of the investigation appears to focus on NYSEG, which many believe was slow on the draw when acquiring out-of-state crews to aide in the restoration efforts.

State Sen. Greg Ball (R-Paterson) voiced his discontent, citing a shortage of dry ice for those affected and a lack of accurate and up-to-the-moment communication from the utility company.

NYSEG spokesman Clayton Ellis told Patch that the company has tried its best to keep the public informed.

“NYSEG has provided three to four news releases a day to the media and public officials in the affected areas. We have responded to dozens of media inquiries. We have held daily calls with public officials in the affected areas. We have also kept our website updated with the latest information and that information is also available [at] our call center, where representatives have been answering calls 24 hours a day,” Ellis said in a statement to Patch.

Implementing solutions has proved harder in practice than in theory. The storm affected 129,000 customers in the State of New York—59,000 of which in Westchester, Putnam and Duchess counties. The damage also affected power distribution as it knocked out 19 substations, all of which have been repaired and put back into service. 

NYSEG has also repaired more than 300 broken poles in various parts of the state and restrung more than 3,000 wires that were knocked down during the storm as of 8 a.m. Sunday morning.

“In Brewster alone we had to immediately address nearly 1,200 downed wires incidents to ensure public safety and 150 poles were broken and needed to be replaced, an extremely labor intensive and time consuming job” said Ellis.

Utility companies, including NYSEG had access to the pool of crews that becomes available before the onset of a storm. However, because Irene inflicted damage from the Carolinas through New England, supplemental contractors and line-and-tree crews from other utilities were difficult to secure, according to Ellis. 

Crews who came from as far away as the Midwest were diverted to the Brewster and Oneonta Divisions, where damage was most severe. But lawmakers don’t question the repair work being done by line crews and those on the front lines of the repair efforts. They say the problem comes at the management level.

Mary Beth Murphy, town supervisor of Somers, calls into question the strength of the grid itself saying that it was in a fragile state to begin with. But what appeared to anger Murphy most was the information NYSEG relayed to her.

“We were given information that we shared with our constituents that was false,” Murphy said, recalling the 3 p.m. conference calls reporting repairs throughout the day.

“It should have been at 10 a.m,” Martorano said. “They should have had someone to tell us what was going on. At least Con Ed gave us a liaison that gave us updates much more frequently. But that was after a little bit of poking from us.”

 The utility told Patch that an outage update was provided every 15 minutes on their online outage map.

"It’s no use to have the updates online because if you have no power you can’t run the computer,” said Carmel Town Supervisor Kenny Schmitt.

Ellis did not respond to questions about the criticism from local lawmakers into their response and preparedness.

Ball, however, made clear that Senate hearings would begin in about a month and would include representatives from NYSEG and Con Ed, as well as federal disaster officials and affected families.

“The storm could have been worse,” Ball said. “But the question here is not one of blame. It is about how we can be better prepared to face another storm or manmade event in which destruction like this could cause families to be without power not for days or weeks—but months.”

 

C Gajowski September 06, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Adding another comment about the radio coverage- echoing Mr. Diamond's comments - here's a suggestion for local stations and governments and utilities-- it would be a great service to have radio broadcasts updating people on what it happening in their locality - on what roads were open and safe, where to get ice, etc.. I tried to find relevant news and all I could get was mostly blather. It may sound archaic, but it would work as long as folks had an emergency radio. Something else I heard in CT - in one town, the local high school opened, served meals twice a day and allowed residents to shower there (not to shelter overnight).
Jed September 07, 2011 at 09:31 AM
Evidently you weren't in the northeast corner of Westchester County on the day of the storm or the immediate aftermath. The towns there were close to 100 percent out of service - no power, phone, internet. There was some cell service, but with no land-based communications, the functioning towers were so overloaded as to be virtually useless. The best one could hope for was to receive the occasional text.
Jed September 07, 2011 at 09:34 AM
In my neighborhood, all of the trees that fell on wires (and there were several) were actually large branches that had been hanging out in the direction of the wires, just waiting for a good strong wind to snap them off. The trees they were attached to are still standing and healthy.
Jed September 07, 2011 at 09:37 AM
1997, not 1987. That storm is the reason I now own a generator.
Jed September 07, 2011 at 09:58 AM
Getting accurate and timely information is definitely a big problem. The NYC radio stations seem to believe that Westchester ends at Route 287, and beyond that is the Frozen Wasteland of the North. My wife and I spent most of Monday and Tuesday chasing after rumors of dry ice sightings. We never knew where our next meal would be coming from or where or when we would be able to use a bathroom and a shower. This isn't a problem that can be solved with a little innovation at Town Hall. The FCC has to get involved in defining a new standard for broadcasting local information. We have the local cell towers, which generally hold up pretty well during big storms. But they don't do broadcast - only point-to-point, which is grossly inefficient during an emergency. Don't expect FEMA to help. We're still waiting for them to show up.

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