Written by D.F. Karppi Friday, 20 July 2012 00:00
What the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) learned from Hurricane Irene was LIPA District Manager Lauren Brookmeyer’s as she spoke at the June 28 East Norwich Civic Association meeting. It was a timely topic since U.S. senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and congressmen Steve Israel and Tim Bishop announced on July 6, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is awarding more than $12.7 million to reimburse LIPA for repairs to the electrical power transmission and distribution system to repair damages caused by Hurricane Irene.
Congressman Tim Bishop brought the message home to residents in the grant announcement saying, “This federal aid will help offset the cost of restoring power after Hurricane Irene, sharply reducing the burden on LIPA customers.” He added “FEMA’s response shows a strong commitment to Long Island taxpayers.”
Hurricane Irene left more than 500,000 outages affecting approximately half of LIPA’s customers on Long Island. This FEMA public assistance grant for public utility repair totals $12,736,634 and will help repair damages to the Authority’s transmission and distribution system. The funding from FEMA covers 75 percent of the total repair project cost for this project.
LIPA District Manager Brookmeyer [one of four in Nassau County] came to talk about storm restoration after Hurricane Irene, the process of repairing and restoring electric service. She said she has been offering to meet with local villages but that they have been slow to respond. She was grateful the ENCA took up the offer and she essentially apologized for the slow response of LIPA to Hurricane Irene, as it was known as it hit Long Island. Later when it lost much of its power it was called Tropical Storm Irene, but here it was fierce with heavy winds and flooding.
In a way, Hurricane Irene can be thought of as “The Avianca” of the electric power industry on Long Island. When the Columbian plane crashed in Cove Neck fire companies from all over Long Island arrived to help at the scene, clogging the roads and creating the awareness that fire departments had to get together to form a management plan on how to handle emergencies. That experience gave them the tools to respond to 9/11. Instead of all rushing to the Twin Towers site, holding areas were created to mobilize and direct the work before moving on to Manhattan.
Ms. Brookmeyer said they see lack of communication as the big failing in handling Hurricane Irene. Now she said they are studying what happened before, during and after the storm. Restoring power is a big job, she said, it’s not just flipping a switch, they needed to fix the problems all along the wire/line that supplies the power.
Ms. Brookmeyer said a few days earlier, on June 24, they were working on a mock scenario for handling storms. The next time elected officials will be getting involved through conference calls, listening to what’s happening at LIPA and spreading the word to their communities, as a result of what they learned from Hurricane Irene.
Before an expected storm happens, LIPA sends out press releases to alert the public though the media and contact their critical care customers: those with electric life support needs. Those customers register for the service and have to present documentation of their need. They become a priority and get first service during outages, although not during a storm situation. In a hurricane scenario they are informed of the coming storm so they can reach out to loved ones, the red cross or the fire department for assistance. In some cases that could mean going to a safe place.
When power outages happen, she said to call 1-800-490-0075. While you may not get to a live person, your message is recorded. In other cases, she said, people are there to answer but “please be patient.”
During the height of the storm she said, “We don’t want our workers in harm’s way.” She said during Hurricane Irene the wind speeds were very high.
During storm outages LIPA serves the critical facilities first, which means: jails, hospitals, police and fire stations and then the residents. They try to service the most number of people at one time as they prioritize the repairs.
She said homes with poles in the rear are difficult to service. It was a great idea when Mr. Levitt covered up the poles and lines with trees for the sake of aesthetics but made it harder to work and get trucks through. If serviced from the street they can use a bucket truck instead of someone climbing up a pole which is more dangerous. Also, they need the homeowner’s permission to go on their property.
When a storm hits, the entire system is attacked at one time, but in some cases it took five to seven days to do the repairs. They learned it was best to tell people up front, when asked, no matter how difficult. The big mistake was not telling people that a repair could take four or five days. Ms. Brookmeyer had suggestions on what to do during a storm and said cell phones are a key. “Rotate the use of cell phones in a disaster, don’t leave them on or they will all die at the same time.”
Matt Meng, ENCA president asked about areas where there are two poles at one location, an old and a new one. Ms. Brookmeyer explained that they don’t come down immediately, that some are owned by Verizon and Cablevision rents some, and they don’t always take out their old poles immediately. She gave Mr. Meng her cell phone number and said community residents should contact him when they have a LIPA service problems and he will call her. She didn’t want to give out her number to the group. “Let me know the location and Matt will send a list and we’ll get the double woods fixed.” That includes other information on system problems. At the meeting Mr. Meng said when a major appliance goes on there is a momentary glitch in the system when the power goes off and on again. One of the residents said they experienced that too and it took four visits by LIPA before one discovered the problem in the line.
“I’m a liaison ‘elected’ official,” said Mr. Meng, accepting the responsibility as the president of the ENCA.
When people mentioned a problem, Ms. Brookmeyer said, “This is why we are out here. I’m not here to defend LIPA, I’m here to solve problems.”
Debbie LaPosa of LIPA said they rely on local information on damage to the system. They have to find the damage and repair it before they can turn on all the switches.
Ms. Brookmeyer said predicting storms is not a science and so before a storm it is hard to judge what they will be fighting since sometimes a storm turns and is spent out. “We can spend a truckload of money and nothing happens.”
She explained that during Hurricane Irene one of the problems was the downed trees. Local village crews worked to remove the trees but there was still a need for LIPA workers to restore electricity. Now, when an emergency strikes. LIPA workers will be assigned to the villages so they can work together in areas where wires are down.
Lianne Gunther asked, “What’s the future of the LIPA lines?” Ms. Brookmeyer said that to put them underground would cost $25 billion for Long Island. “It happens little by little (in some new subdivisions) but it is extremely costly.” They take longer to restore since you have to dig up concrete to make repairs. As for solar farms, they need state money to be implemented, she said. There is a solar farm in Brookhaven but it cost $25 million and, broken down by the homes that use it, it cost each home $658,000 for the service, which is why that system is 50 years away.
LIPA is a state agency and is nonprofit. They have no extra money, and what they have goes toward solar power, said Ms. Brookmeyer.
Local legislators responded to the news of the reimbursement funds in a press release. “This is great news for Long Island,” said Senator Schumer. “Hurricane Irene left many parts of Long Island without power, but this funding will go a long way towards reimbursing LIPA for the costs it took to repair the damage after the storm.”
“Long Island took some of the very worst of Hurricane Irene, leaving families and businesses in the dark without power,” Senator Gillibrand said. “And even though this massive storm is almost a full year behind us, much of the damage is still here. This grant will help our effort to continue rebuilding so families and businesses on Long Island can get back on their feet.”
“Our region took a hit from Hurricane Irene, and many local businesses and families lost power,” said Rep. Steve Israel. “The response from the federal, state and county levels has aided recovery efforts tremendously. I’m grateful for the efforts of the emergency response professionals at all levels, and I’m grateful for this grant, which will help reimburse LIPA for their work to repair the damage.”
The next meeting of the ENCA is on July 26 at the Community United Methodist Church of East Norwich starting at 7:45 p.m. For more information please call 606-8053.