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Reacting to Fallen Power Lines, Dark Homes

No simple answers, but at least the questions are being asked at a Yorktown roundtable.

Elected officials, utility executives and first-responders picked through the remains of two recent storms Thursday, seeking better ways to address downed power lines, fallen trees and darkened homes.

Sixteen men and one woman—snugly seated at, or at least near, a table in Yorktown’s town hall—looked back at damaging winds and days without power and asked, in retrospect, what they could have done better and, more importantly, what they should do next time.

A handful of private citizens, most of them Yorktown residents, looked on as roundtable participants considered ways to improve preparedness, accelerate emergency responses and foster closer cooperation.

The panel was organized and chaired by State Sen. Greg Ball and included representatives from New York State Electric & Gas Corp. (NYSEG), the Consolidated Edison Co. (Con Ed), Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp.., fire and police chiefs and elected officials, including Ball and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen O’Dell, the only woman in the group.

Ball called the meeting in the wake of two crippling natural eruptions—Tropical Storm Irene at the end of August and a surprise Nor’easter at the end of October—that left tens of thousands in the lower Hudson Valley without power, some for exceptional stretches of time.

After almost two hours of discussion—generally harmonious given the potential for post-mortem recrimination—no simple solutions had emerged, the perennial suggestion to bury power lines had itself been buried instead and the call for closer cooperation took at least one concrete step forward.

Yorktown Highway Superintendent Eric Dibartolo proposed having a utility representative stationed with each affected municipality, someone who could at a minimum tell first-responders which wires were “hot” and which safe. Cooperation would be markedly improved, he said, just by having this person act as a liaison between the community and the power supplier. “All we really need for the Town of Yorktown,” he told the utility representatives, “is for one of your people to come to the police station.”

Dibartolo’s proposal was embraced by other first-responders and not dismissed by utility represenatives. Con Edson’s Anthony Torphy, who directs electric operations in the utility’s emergency management sector, assured the panel, “We’re committed to working with first-responders. . . . Any municipality that wants a liaison will get one.”

A NYSEG representative was less sanguine about putting a body in every town hall his company serves. “We’re a very spread-out regional utility,” said James Solomon, a government representative. Pointing out that his area comprises 270 municipalities, Salmon said, “We don’t as a general rule provide individual liaison to each municipality. NYSEG instead tries to work through county-level emergency operations centers,” Salmon said.

Still, as Yorktown Police Officer Larry Eidelman made clear, an on-the-scene liaison can pay big dividends. Eidelman, the town’s public safety officer, described driving Yorktown’s storm-ravaged streets with a Con Ed rep “in the passenger seat.” He could not only see the damage first-hand but also issue numbered—therefore trackable—work orders directly from the police car, Eidelman said.

From the vantage point of his cruiser, Eidelman on other occasions also encountered out-of-town power crews. Imported for the storm emergency but unfamiliar with Yorktown’s most pressing needs, they sometimes worked with insufficient local guidance, he said. “Why don’t you split up the crews and put one {local utility worker] with them?” Eidelman suggested.

Another Con Ed representative, Steven Parisi, said his company generally dispatches out-of-town crews to large-scale restoration projects and assigns a Con Ed rep to go with them while they work that job.

Mohegan Lake Fire Chief Brian Wolert complained that utilities were relying on local first-responders to safeguard the sites of downed power lines, forcing him to dispatch skilled–and often paid—firefighters to “babysit” potentially “live” wires. “I feel emergency services are being taken advantage of,” he said.

Con Ed’s Torphy rejected Wolert’s assertion, saying, “That’s not our policy.” He insisted the company has “hundreds of people to ‘babysit’ downed wires.”

Torphy also dismissed a suggestion by Chris Shopinkski, director of facilities at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, that the giant utility had not been prepared when Nature twice unleashed her fury this year.

“We were fully mobilized for both of those storms,” he said.

Even as the conversation veered into such sensitive subject areas, the tone remained professional, not confrontational, the roundtable observing Ball’s dictum “to try to solve this as a community.” The Patterson Republican cut short a round of applause for Yorktown Councilman Nick Bianco, who had suggested of NYSEG, “Perhaps you guys ought to lose some territory. How can you cover from here to the Canadian border?”

As members of the small audience applauded, Ball reminded them, politely but firmly, “This is not a pep rally; it’s a hearing.”

Casually attired but all business in his conduct of the hearing, Ball kept speakers largely on-topic. Still, in a discussion of dry ice—after Irene, Con Ed set up distribution points for the cooling agent in Cortlandt and Armonk while NYSEG gave away more than 700,000 pounds of it—Ball observed: “Dry ice is like gold in these situations. Politicians are killing each other trying to hand it out.”

While Thursday’s roundtable arguably helped all of these interdependent sides in their ongoing contest with Nature, it’s debatable whether it scored political points on a par with dry ice. A decidedly unscientific, post-meeting sampling of Yorktown residents, none of whom wanted to be identified, declared themselves unimpressed.

One man, predicting no changes as a result of the roundtable, said, “They don’t repair our infrastructure. Where’s the money going?”

A Poplar Street woman, saying the small knot of exiting residents all lived in the same neighborhood off Route 6, was equally pessimistic about seeing an improvement in service. “We’ve had 24 outages in two years,” she said. “It’s the same neighborhood, always going out.”

And if she was planning on some revolutionary solution to that problem—running power lines underground, for example, beyond the reach of the stoutest wind or tree limb—panelists had already assured Ball it was an impossibly expensive notion.

Call it density economics. In the land of large-lot zoning—the very bucolic openness many sought as an escape from New York City’s densely packed living space—linking homes to a power source already requires miles of high-voltage cable per customer. Having to bury that much cable in pursuit of so few customers in suburbia is “not economically feasible,” Con Ed’s Torphy said.

A Con Ed study in 2006-7, he said, found it resulting in electricity costs three to six times what they now are, lrvrls deemed to be “cost-prohibitive.” 

Charles Freni, vice president of customer service at Central Hudson, put it more simply: Underground service would increase the average homeowner’s electric bill by $10,000 a year.

Putnam County Executive MaryEllen O’Dell, Assemblyman Steve Katz and, with his back to a lobby card announcing Thursday’s roundtable, State Sen. Greg Ball. Katz, a Mohegan Lake resident, succeeded the freshman senator as assemblyman in the 99th District .

State Sen. Greg Ball leads roundtable discussion of the response to two recent storms, which created widespread and frequently long-lasting power outages.

Yorktown’s public safety officer, Police Officer Larry Eidelman, foreground, and his boss, Chief Daniel McMahon, listen to roundtable discussion. Hidden between them is Central Hudson’s Charles Freni.

Yorktown Highway Superintendent Eric Dibartolo asks utilities to have someone on the scene to help the town cope with downed power lines and other disruptions.

Participants swap views at Yorktown roundtable discussion of recent storms that spawned widespread, long-term power losses.

 

Southeast Resident December 09, 2011 at 11:27 PM
How about focusing on preventing and reducing the number of outrages in the first place? The quantity of outrages the we experience annually is not a sign of a well maintained system.
CPBD December 10, 2011 at 11:35 AM
Why was cutting the trees back not discussed? Seems so obvious. Prune the trees. Cheaper than burying. Can selective lines be buried? Has this been studied? Seems a stock answer to improving the electric infrastructure is always it's too expensive to bury the lines but what about selective corridors? Cutting back the trees is number one. Do it during the summer and when crews do not have to work overtime and you don't have to bring in emergency crews from out of state. You have to choose - reliable electricity or trees grown wild and in the wrong places.
Jeanne Gilholm December 10, 2011 at 01:56 PM
The very best-maintained utility system in the world will be useless if large, very old trees are nearby and drop huge heavy limbs in an unexpected wet snowstorm. The sheer weight of these limbs do the damage not only to power lines, but to homes and cars. I agree with CPBD about paying more attention to the trees. There's really little else that can be done reasonably.
RGD32162 December 10, 2011 at 03:22 PM
Everyone is always talking about cutting back the trees. The Hurricane in September and blizzard in October were both huge storms that didn't blow down a few stray dead or almost dead trees. They knocked down countless huge trees not a few stray branches. Of course cutting down trees would help prevent future outaged but inorder to totally pervent whet happened in those 2 storms as well as the 1997 April Fools Day storm they would have to clear ever tree within atleast 60 feet of every road. Not only would that be impractible (almost impossible) how many people would freak if they started cutting all those trees down?? Underground wires would definitely help but the cost would be astronomic. Con Ed and NYSEG would just raise everyones electric bills to cover the cost. How many people would be happy with higher electric bills not to mention the years of construction and road closures and delays caused by burying all the wires?
Donald Diamond December 10, 2011 at 05:31 PM
The panelists ignored the possibility that effective tree trimming might effectively reduce the number of outages caused by the storm and reduce the time it takes to restore power. One can drive along the roads and spot tree branches that hang over wires that ready to create a power disruption. It seems as if it is cheaper for the utilities to fix wires than undertake a systematize tree trimming program. As long as we leave tree trimming to the utilities, we invite week long power outages as well as the same residents having multiple outages in a short time span. The town governments should establish a program to continuously monitor the need for tree trimming. The session focused on the loss of electric power. However, telephone, internet and cell phone services were also destroyed during the power outages. If emergency fire or health assistance was needed there was no way that it could be summoned to the scene. Do people have to die before the utilities will be required to regularly trim trees? I know that tree trimming will not eliminate every single power outage. But, it sure would help.
Southeast Resident December 10, 2011 at 11:53 PM
RDG - We may not prevent the loss of power during a major storm like this October, but consistent maintenance will lessen the severity and prevent the numerous minor outtages that we have all year long when it rains or the wind blows.
Donald Diamond December 12, 2011 at 05:41 AM
We cannot trust NYSEG or Con Edison to properky trim trees. The only way to make sure trimming is done with regularity is for local goiverments to monitor the power lines and make sure that they do the job.

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