“Before the major storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders, the electric company promised that they were prepared,” Nassau County Legislator Delia De-Riggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) wrote in a letter to her constituents Aug. 7.
“Then, the website for reporting power outages crashed and the phone lines jammed, text messages and apps fared little better, trees tangled in electrical wires blocked major thoroughfares days later and the company couldn’t track what traffic lights were still out.” DeRiggi-Whitton wrote. “Are we talking about Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – or Tropical Storm Isaias just a few days ago?”
Over a week after winds from Tropical Storm Isaias rocked Long Island for under three hours, thousands of PSEG Long Island customers remained without power, and state officials were launching probes into the utility’s perceived ineffective response in terms of preparedness and communications, said by some to rival the Long Island Power Authority’s response to Superstorm Sandy.
THOUSANDS WITHOUT ELECTRICITY
PSEG initially said on Aug. 6 that the storm affected approximately 440,000 customers across Long Island, but walked back its claim in a statement on Wednesday, claiming the actual figure was 420,000 affected. About 15,528 customers remained without power as of Wednesday morning.
“Due to the large number of crews from other utilities brought into our service area before Tropical Storm Isaias, power restoration is progressing faster than can be displayed on the outage map,” a statement said. “The map will fluctuate as we refine the data.”
PSEG also said that while it “experienced issues with our communications systems, at no time did these challenges impact restoration efforts.”
The power map originally stated that most of the North Shore would see its power return by either Aug. 7 or Aug. 8, but many in those areas still remain without electricity.
East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz expressed his frustration in an email to his village. Approximately 1,455 PSEG customers were affected in East Hills, with 223 outages reported.
“While there has been a partial restoration of some areas of the village, PSEG’s response to Hurricane Isaias has been completely deficient,” Koblenz said. “I have been talking with PSEG’s management and other governmental leaders to have our power restored at the earliest point in time.”
In Flower Hill, 817 PSEG customers were affected, and 234 outages were reported. Mayor Brian Herrington wrote in a letter to residents on Aug. 6 that he too was “frustrated” with the company’s response.
“Like you, I am frustrated with PSEG’s response and the fact that restoration times have been pushed back,” Herrington wrote. “I would encourage everyone to prepare for restoration times to take longer than PSEG has communicated, possibly even taking into the weekend in some cases. As we continue to get more definitive information we will update you on power restoration. I have been in touch with [County Executive Laura Curran], the Town of North Hempstead and our local mayors, and we will continue to advocate on our residents’ behalf.”
Herrington later joined the Port Washington Peninsula Mayors Association, comprising the mayors of Flower Hill, Baxter Estates, Manorhaven, Munsey Park, Plandome, Plandome Heights, Port Washington North and Sands Point, in writing a letter to PSEG President and CEO Daniel Eichorn and LIPA CEO Thomas Falcone on Aug. 10. In total, 4,220 residents in those villages, plus an additional 3,745 in Port’s unincorporated areas, lost electricity during or following the storm.
“We village mayors are contacting you collectively representing various parts of Manhasset, Port Washington, and Roslyn to demand immediate deployment of additional resources into our communities,” the letter read. “Our residents and our teams have patiently tried to work cooperatively with little to no operational support. Our communities continue to manage serious public health situations presented by downed lines, COVID-19, and residents now not having power for six days. The continued delaying of restoration times and lack of operational support is unacceptable.”
The letter noted that the crews on the ground and the municipal representative teams were “professional” over the course of the recovery.
“Our villages have cleared the roads and done all the things we needed to do to assist LIPA and PSEG with recovery, but we are not seeing the same support from your operational teams,” the letter read. “The frontline workers are doing their best to get the job done but it is clear to us that more help is needed to immediately address the safety and electrical restoration needs of our communities and all of Long Island.”
Over 5,200 PSEG customers were affected in the Great Neck villages. Kensington Mayor Susan Lopartin said in an email to her village’s residents that PSEG was “unable to clarify the timeline any further.”
“Many homes in the village lost power, and I’ve been speaking with PSEG routinely to obtain information about restoration,” Lopatkin said. “My municipal contact at PSEG has told me that they expect power to be fully restored at the latest within a week, but hopefully sooner. Unfortunately, PSEG is unable to clarify the timeline any further with respect to the Village of Kensington. I will of course continue to work with PSEG to expedite the restoration.”
Koblenz later announced that he wrote a letter to state Sens. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck), Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) and John Brooks (D-Seaford) supporting their efforts to launch an investigation into PSEG and other utilities that were not effective during the storm, and offered to testify.
“We have no doubt that unfortunately extreme weather will occur repeatedly in the future,” Koblenz said. “Our utility must be able to respond to emergencies rapidly and effectively. PSE&G was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to respond to the current challenge.”
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin, who had called for an investigation into PSEG’s response and compared its ineffectiveness to LIPA during Superstorm Sandy immediately following the storm, called PSEG incompetent in a statement on Monday.
“PSEGLI’s performance in the areas of communications and energy restoration in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias was characterized by gross incompetence,” Clavin said. “Claims by PSEG that it is not liable for customers’ damage and reimbursement claims because Tropical Storm Isaias was an ‘Act of God’ are questionable, at best.”
Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth issued a statement invoking the same 2012 event.
“While the storm came and went quickly, its impact on our community was not dissimilar to the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012,” Bosworth wrote. “We are grateful that there were no reports of losses of life, and our Town crews are working diligently to ensure the continued safety of our residents.”
Bosworth also said that the town’s total recovery “is expected to take several weeks.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said at a press conference on Thursday that she had spoken to Cuomo prior to his declaration.
“I know many residents are still without power,” Curran said. “PSEG’s Dan Eichorn has been out there talking about how they take responsibility, they’ve said that it’s unacceptable and they’re going to look to see what happened.”
In recent days, Curran suggested that the public utility reimburse residents and businesses that have endured unacceptable power outages lasting over 24 hours, as well as refund ratepayers for their last month’s utility bill.
Curran then called upon PSEG leaders to announce plans for a “post recovery review” that would include examining communications protocols and devising a backup plan.
“You’ve got to have a plan B and a plan C,” Curran said. “And a repeat of those mistakes is unacceptable.”
INVESTIGATIONS BEGIN, LEGISLATION INTRODUCED
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has directed the state’s Department of Public Service to launch an investigation into the responses of many utilities, including PSEG, to “determine the causes of their failures.”
“We know that severe weather is our new reality and the reckless disregard by utility companies to adequately plan for tropical storm Isaias left tens of thousands of customers in the dark, literally and figuratively,” Cuomo said. “Their performance was unacceptable. The large volume of outages and the utilities’ failure to communicate with customers in real time proves they did not live up to their legal obligations. The fact that many customers still do not know when their power will be restored makes it even more unacceptable. The worst of this situation was avoidable, and it cannot happen again.”
State Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a letter to PSEG dated Aug. 6 that she would open a probe into the response to “determine whether violations of state law have occurred.”
The New York state Senate will also hold hearings on the matter, scheduled for the week of Aug. 17, and to be co-chaired by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach).
In the same legislative body, state Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) announced Monday that she had introduced a package of legislation to reform the way utility companies respond in emergency situations, including prioritizing critical emergency services, keeping cellular networks running, creating a discount on a consumer’s bill proportionate to the amount of the time the customer was without service, and more accountability for fixing downed power lines, among other things.
“PSEG LI, Verizon, and Altice have completely failed Long Island, and left us without electricity and critical communications services for an entire week following a storm that didn’t even reach hurricane status,” Kaplan said in a statement. “Moving forward, it’s clear we need to put in strict guard rails and consumer protections to ensure that these companies are prepared for the next storm, so that we never go through hell like this again.”