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NY Gov, Others Lambaste Utility Companies Over Storm Response

O&R on scene after Tropical Storm Isaias damage, August 2020
Courtesy of Orange and Rockland Utilities
O&R on scene after Tropical Storm Isaias damage, August 2020

With thousands of Hudson Valley customers still without power from last week’s storm, elected officials have been unleashing their frustration with utility companies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo weighed Monday, calling out two companies, one that services most of Westchester County. Meantime, the Westchester County executive is calling for the creation of a Utility Reserve Corps.

On a COVID-19 briefing call with reporters, Cuomo addressed the response to power restoration following Tropical Storm Isaias last Tuesday.

“The utility companies, some are doing a better job, some are doing a worse job,” says Cuomo. “Con Edison and PSE&G are doing the worst.”

PSE&G serves Long Island; Con Edison serves about 90 percent of Westchester County. Cuomo had a warning for utility companies following his directive last week for the Public Service Commission to investigate their storm preparedness and response.

“I want the utilities to know that we do not abide by the concept in New York that anything is too big to fail. Your franchise can be revoked. I am not bluffing. I don’t bluff,” Cuomo says. “Your franchise can be revoked. Con Edison, your franchise can be revoked.  And I am as serious as a heart attack.”

Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer says Cuomo is not blustering about the potential to revoke a franchise and supports the governor’s intent to hold utility companies accountable. In 2013, the state worked up an agreement revamping the power utility on Long Island, thus terminating the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA. Latimer has his own idea of how to provide better response to future storms.

“I’ve argued that we, that we need to take a concept and turn it into some reality by having a Utility Reserve Corps that is analogous to having the National Guard or the Army Reserve,” says Latimer.

He says day six of a storm outage is unacceptable.

“We don’t have enough people to put out, boots on the ground, at the time necessary, and if we don’t change that Hurricane Ignatz will come along, Hurricane Jeramiah will come along, Hurricane Karen will come along — you notice I’m going  in alphabetical order since the hurricane that hit us, Hurricane I — and we’ll have the same thing,” Latimer says. “Nothing will change. Nothing will change until we put enough people capable of cutting and clearing, and then enough people capable of restoration, on the ground fast enough before we get to day six.”

A statement from ConEd reads, “We are completely focused on restoring power as safely and quickly as possible to every customer. After every major event we perform a thorough analysis of what can be improved and we’ll do the same following the second worst storm in the history of our service territory.“

Democratic state Senator Pete Harckham, whose 40th District includes areas of northern Westchester County, along with portions of Putnam and Dutchess, says the Senate and Assembly will hold joint hearings on the failure of electric utilities and wireless communications providers to adequately prepare for the storm and respond to power outages.

“The hearings are needed because we have been down this path time and time again. I’ve been working storms since 2008 with these municipalities, and they just don’t seem to learn the lessons. Every time it’s reinventing the wheel, communication within municipalities, communication with constituents, getting enough make safe crews, are they prepared in time, on and on and on,” Harckham says. “And it just happens storm after storm after storm, and this has got to change and it’s got to change systemically and it’s got to change permanently, and that’s why we’re having the hearings.”

He says utility companies should focus on upgrades.

“In this day and age of digital sensors, we shouldn’t have to do manual reporting of what circuits are down, of what wires and poles are down, what damage is done to the transmission line. We should be able to do this all remotely and digitally,” says Harckham. “So we’re living with 18th century technology with 21st century communications, so it just doesn’t work anymore.”

Meantime, Con Edison, and Orange and Rockland Utilities will reimburse customers for spoiled food and medications. Both have expanded their claims policy to those who lost power for more than 48 consecutive hours from the storm to cover spoiled food, medication or perishable commercial merchandise.

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