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Communities search for answers as utilities work to restore power

Ragtime Lotto Cafe in Howard Beach uses a string of lights hooked up to a generator to illuminate the awning of the store. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

An elected official incorrectly said on the radio that the Long Island Power Authority told her it would take seven weeks to restore power to the Rockaways. A resident on the peninsula claimed the NYPD was turning back out-of-state power workers.

In neighborhoods left without electricity in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, rumors often fill the void left by the absence of reliable information, and the waiting for answers can often be just as agonizing as the wait for the lights to come on.

“We’re upset, and we’re upset because we don’t have answers,” state Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) said last Thursday in Belle Harbor, where he and other officials pointed the finger at executives at LIPA, Con Edison and the city and state governments for leaving communities in the dark. “We want to know what’s going on. We want to know what’s happening. We want to know when is our power going to be coming back on and the problem is that we’re not getting the answers we need.”

The days following Sandy have not been the first time the city’s public utilities have been criticized for their handling of a crisis, though the superstorm has presented some unique challenges.

Last year, about 25,000 Con Ed customers in Queens lost electricity when Hurricane Irene’s high winds brought down trees and power lines in the borough. Con Ed said Sandy caused five times the damage that Irene did, and by Tuesday night it had restored power to more than 130,000 customers affected by the storm.Unlike Irene, however, Sandy brought massive flooding to parts of coastal Queens, and for those flood-damaged homes the timeline for turning the lights back on extends beyond the utilities getting their infrastructure repaired.

Con Ed said there were about 500 customers in Howard Beach and Broad Channel Tuesday whose power was still turned off because they had not cleared a safety inspection.

On the Rockaway Peninsula, LIPA said it had restored electricity to 9,500 customers by Tuesday and estimated there were about 27,000 who were unable to receive power without repairs.

Many homeowners were surprised when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, during one of his daily updates, said a building first needed to be certified safe by a city-licensed electrician in order for the utilities to turn the power on.

“On Day 10 they first told us that we need electricians to check our panels,” Goldfeder said. “Why are they not telling us on Day 1, let alone Days 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9? That’s a lot of days. That’s a lot of people who are cold and who are hungry and have not gotten the benefit of an answer.”

Dan Mundy, president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, said once Con Ed was up and running on the island, residents faced a dearth of qualified electricians, and those they could find were quoting prices up to $4,000. He said the city could easily alleviate the problem by allowing licensed electricians from other parts of the state to come in and do the work.

Recommendations on how the utilities — and the body that oversees them — could better handle crises have been made before. Following the 2006 blackout that gripped western Queens, an Assembly investigation recommended, among other things, that Con Ed “communicate with elected officials on a frequent basis throughout the duration of a power outage and establish clear procedures for relaying this information to the general public in a clear and regular fashion.”

The report also took to task the state Public Service Commission, which oversees public utilities, for lax oversight.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Con Ed and LIPA could possibly have their licenses revoked, and Tuesday he announced the formation of a commission — one of whose members is the Rev. Floyd Flake — to investigate the utilities’ storm responses.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who headed the Assembly’s investigation of the blackout, said he could not recall a time when the state ever revoked a utility’s license.

“Not that I’m aware of. That’s typically not done,” he said. “There’s a pretty low level of accountability.”

Earlier City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) had asked the Council to hold a series of hearings to assess the responses of both the city and Con Edison. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) sent a letter to Cuomo requesting an investigation of public utility companies.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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