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Senate Hearing Calls Out LIPA’s ‘Failure’ After Irene

LI Senators Say Investigation Needed Before LIPA Renews National Grid Contract

Senator Carl Marcellino questioned LIPA and National Grid representatives last week, introducing a State Senate hearing with wording that many on the island might use at this point: “What the hell happened?”

After Tropical Storm Irene left many Long Island residents, municipal facilities and even emergency responders without power for days, and some for over a week, New York state senators held a hearing, first, to determine what went wrong in LIPA and National Grid’s storm preparedness plans and, second, to call for a delay in the renewal of the contract between LIPA and National Grid until an independent review can be done to see if Long Island could be better served by a different arrangement.

The Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations hearing took place on Friday, Sept. 22 in Nassau County’s Legislative Chambers. Led by committee chairman Senator Carl Marcellino, Senators Charles J. Fuschillo, Jack M. Martins, Owen H. Johnson, Kenneth P. LaValle and John J. Flanagan sought testimony from LIPA Chief Operating Officer Michael D. Hervey and John Bruckner, president of Long Island Electric Transmission and Distribution Services for National Grid. Nassau County Executive Edward P. Mangano sent Craig Craft to testify on behalf of the county.

It was explained that LIPA is the public face of electric power for Long Island, but only employs about 125 people. The actual day-to-day operations are handled through National Grid in a contract that expires in 2013. National Grid’s work includes billing, running the electric grid and performing storm restoration.

All the senators made it clear that the workers out on the street doing repairs were to be commended. The group, however, did not pull punches criticizing how the storm response was managed.

“LIPA’s preparedness systems were definitely put to the test. They fell short. While I commend our emergency responders and law enforcement officials for working hard to meet the needs of Long Islanders, it is clear that we must take a closer look at LIPA’s response and determine if they are truly prepared for a major hurricane. We have had more than enough opportunities to prepare and practice for a big storm, so we are asking these experts what went wrong,” said Senator Marcellino.

The two men representing LIPA and Grid sat for this line of questioning, admitting there was room for improvement while also trying to make the case that their response to Irene was understandable.

“…LIPA is fully committed to analyzing its efforts prior to, during and after Hurricane Irene in order to find ways to improve upon quality service to is customers going forward,” testified LIPA COO Michael Hervey. He continued saying that Irene was the island’s worse storm since Gloria in 1985 and that 10,000 trees were damaged, causing 523,000 electric outages – about 48 percent of LIPA’s customers. 6,000 locations were in need of repair, he said, adding that LIPA made more than 800,000 outbound calls to try to communicate with customers. “While LIPA’s plan and capabilities are not unlike most other electric utilities, we will look to improve…” He said the overall effort was “quite impressive.”

Neither the idea that LIPA is now reviewing what to do better, or the assertion that their response was normal flew with the senate committee, which pointed out that LIPA shouldn’t be learning about storms in the year 2011 and that the overall handling of Irene was unacceptable.

Senators pointed out that LIPA should have communicated better, with both residents, who were literally in the dark for too long, and more importantly, counties, towns and villages, who had a large workforce that could have worked with utility crews to get things up and running much faster if there was coordination.

“While you guys pat each other on the back, I think you failed miserably,” argued Senator Fuschillo. “…all I keep hearing is assessment and review… you failed. .. whatever you had in place… you failed.”

Senator Martins called out the lack of coordination with municipalities. He and other senators suggested that teaming more directly with governments could help. For instance, if a crew from LIPA would be assigned to a crew in each municipality, they could shut off live power lines that are down and the local crew could clear trees and branches, opening roads back up and helping LIPA get power back up.

“I have 32 villages in my district,” he said. “…32 mayors and three town supervisors… these highway departments have the ability to deploy personnel… every village and municipality needed a LIPA truck crew to de-power lines so that crews could remove trees.”

The men representing LIPA and Grid said that they only know of a power outage when it is reported. To this effect, Martins and others pointed out why it is so important to communicate in that case.

“Communities knew where every tree was down. They knew where they were and if there was someone from National Grid or LIPA, we would have saved days off of your repairs and people would have had power days earlier. Work with our local communities. Consolidation doesn’t work.”

Along these lines, Marcellino pointed out that in his own neighborhood, a large tree was down across a major thoroughfare, South Oyster Bay Road, causing a big outage to his community and a hazard for drivers. He said the tree was actually held up solely by power lines as it hung over the road, with cars driving underneath.

“It took three days to get it down,” he said. “The response [from LIPA] was ‘It’s a county tree’… Deputy County Executive Walker sent out a crew but they had to know if the lines were dead before they could clear the tree. So, the county couldn’t take out the tree. Communication wasn’t there, trust me, I know, I lived it… This was repeated over and over again, island-wide.”

Marcellino and others pointed out that LIPA’s call center and website did not work. It was hard for residents to get through to anyone to report outages, there was ineffective handling of these reports at LIPA and LIPA’s site was not correct about which communities were restored or out.

Craig Craft of Nassau County’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) said that he could tell, even at the county government level, there was no good system in place to take reports of outages or communicate what was going on in the restoration process.

“A great amount of information went up to LIPA but nothing came back down. The representative from LIPA [working with OEM] was excellent… they saw that all the information went up, but nothing came back down, including restoring power to critical infrastructure.”

This critical infrastructure included a shelter housing 1,000, who all had to be relocated to another shelter because power was never restored. It also included police stations and town and village halls. The Town of Oyster Bay Town Hall had no power for three days, for instance.

After much more testimony along these lines from municipalities and even a frustrated business owner who suffered significant losses and claimed unprofessional service from LIPA, the committee concluded that LIPA’s contract to outsource to National Grid should not be voted on in October, as scheduled, but rather an independent review of their operations should take place first. The committee sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to “intervene” and assure that this decision is postponed.

Right now, Con Edison and PSEG have also completed contract negotiations with LIPA and could takeover for National Grid if needed.

Marcellino said, “I don’t trust the fox to look at the security system in the hen house… I want a full [independent] review of the system… and I want a full review of this so-called 21st century communication system which you heard, over and over again, absolutely failed.”

Ahead of the hearing, Senators Fuschillo and Marcellino also took issue with the fact that LIPA has been without a permanent CEO for nearly a year. They called on LIPA’s Board of Trustees to submit a nomination for a new permanent CEO to the Senate Energy Committee.

“Choosing a new permanent CEO needs to be a top priority for LIPA’s Board of Trustees. It’s absurd that they have allowed one of the nation’s biggest utilities, which serves over 1.1 million people, to be left without a permanent CEO for nearly a year. Given the numerous issues facing LIPA, the board should immediately submit a nomination to the Senate’s Energy Committee so we can begin the confirmation process,” said Senator Fuschillo and Marcellino.