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Town Holds Storm Damage Assessment Meeting

Public Officials Discuss Power Outage Issues With LIPA

The Town of North Hempstead held a Storm Damage Assessment meeting at Harbor Links on Friday, Sept. 9, giving village officials the opportunity to discuss several issues related to area damage from Tropical Storm Irene. Members of local fire departments and other emergency services were also present, along with other elected officials representing districts in North Hempstead.

As they discussed storm damage assessments, information on filing claims with FEMA was also provided. Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said that in the future, the town would like to be able to work with LIPA in order to have more substantive, real time information for their constituents. Kaiman said that calls to 311 increased greatly in volume before and after the storm, showing that this system is an effective way to disseminate information to town residents. However, Kaiman said that the information received from LIPA was sporadic; creating a frustrating situation with everyone.

Doug Shearer, a representative from LIPA’s emergency planning department, attended the meeting to discuss power outage issues related to the storm and to answer questions. He explained that his department tries to build relationships with local municipalities and emergency services before these types of events, and that during an event, they staff the emergency operations center in Nassau and Suffolk counties with liaisons there to handle administrative tasks and debris clearance. In speaking about Irene, he said, “I know there were issues with communications, and there’s a lot of issues with information that was given to the villages – lack thereof – and there are some lessons learned, a process that is being done now at LIPA, that is going to tackle all of these issues.” Shearer further explained that LIPA is looking at more of a localized process and that the point of this meeting is to gather “lessons learned.” He also stressed the importance of preparing paperwork for FEMA, and to stay focused on that process.

Power Outages

With the major issue of power outages after the storm, many elected officials at this meeting asked questions related to this matter.

Michael Koblenz, the mayor of East Hills, questioned Shearer about what LIPA could do to somehow refund customers who suffered extended outages. However, Shearer said that he could not answer the question at this time.

LIPA’s system of gathering information about outages also came under fire. State Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel questioned whether the information gathering system was centralized or decentralized. Shearer said that when LIPA decentralizes, they put crews in substations, and they do surveys, find damage, and write up paper tickets. He explained that they use paper tickets in case of a computer system failure. The crews come back to the substations that are local in the communities, he said, and they enter the tickets into the computer system. Shearer added that they also put that information on a map that they have in the substation, and then that information is observed centrally in division headquarters.

“If we decentralize to where the substation is a mini-utility – it is called local control – then that information is held there, and they go out and do restoration,” Shearer explained. “Once you go to local control, some of that information is not seen until they run daily reports back and forth, so they operate as a mini-utility for a certain period of time, affecting restoration locally in that area… and there are a number of substations in the Town of North Hempstead that had that feature,” he added.

Schimel further questioned Shearer about the paper tickets system, and suggested that LIPA use tablets to quickly dispense information. Schimel said, “I had no power for eight days. I was the last one in my village to get it, but my Blackberry worked. I was able to give information, so why wouldn’t you have tablets?” Shearer said that he was writing it down as an observation, and Supervisor Kaiman explained that gathering these observations is important, since they are anticipating having more meetings down the road. “LIPA has an obligation to respond to the community, and I think they are aware of that obligation. While they might not be able to answer every question now, clearly, this information has to be a part of the discussion,” Kaiman said.

Patrick Theodore of the East Williston Fire Department said that their firehouse lost power and their generator was not working. He said, “If our building doesn’t have power, we can’t get calls, we won’t be able to respond to emergencies.” He added that the firehouse did not get power back until everyone else in that area had power back. Theodore questioned whether there was a prioritized order for power restoration for emergency services.

“We do have a group that focuses on hospitals – there is a hierarchy in restoration. I am putting down the fire department issue, because it is critical infrastructure that needs to be addressed,” Shearer said.

Communication

Many of the mayors at this meeting were concerned about power outages not being reported correctly by LIPA. In East Hills, people were informed through LIPA’s online power outage map that 51 homes were without power, when in fact; village officials said the number was in the hundreds. Several mayors asked why this information on LIPA’s website was inaccurate. Shearer said that LIPA is looking into this matter.

Nassau County Legislator Judi Bosworth said, “I spoke to constituents again and again, and they said, ‘If I had known I was not going to have power for a week, I would have made other arrangements,” Shearer noted that LIPA had stated on the day after the storm that in many cases, power would not be restored until Friday. However, Bosworth noted that many did not get their power back until Sunday.

In addition, Bosworth described an experience she had in her area with communication problems with LIPA, and how it might have been caused by the paper tickets system. “There was a tree down on Bayview Avenue in Great Neck, and it was down for days. I know I reported it to LIPA, and I know other people who called it in, but when I called again Tuesday night, I was told, ‘I am going to write up a ticket.’ It would seem that the person I was speaking to should have been able to see on a computer that it already had been entered, and if it hadn’t been entered, I think that goes very much towards some of the problems that we were encountering.”

Port Washington North Mayor Bob Weitzner described a confusing experience in his village. He was first under the impression that power had been fully restored in his village on Monday, but then received an email stating that 200 residents were without power. Weitzner said that he would have liked to inform residents that power was back, but could not get this verified through LIPA. He suggested that LIPA might have a problem with the geographical grid.

Plandome Mayor Lloyd Williams noted that NorthShoreAlert, which is an alert system created by the Port Washington-Manhasset Office of Emergency Management, was helpful to residents, and that Commissioner Peter Forman did a great deal of coordinating between the villages and special districts. He suggested that LIPA could provide updates to people through these types of alert systems. Town Clerk Leslie Gross agreed, stating that the 311 Call Center is another helpful communication tool. She said, “When I volunteered there for a couple of hours on Sunday night, there were no updates from LIPA to the 311 Center.” Gross added that it would be easier for LIPA to provide updates to the call center, “Rather than us just giving out LIPA’s 1-800 number to 4,000 more people, which became a dead end.”

Organizational Issues

East Hills Mayor Koblenz gave two observations. One was that there was little to no management of some of the work crews who came from other states, which created a disorganized situation. The other observation was that it was difficult to remove downed trees that were tangled with wires, because crews had to wait for LIPA’s lineman to give them the go-ahead, which in some cases took several hours.

Village Trustee Tab Hauser of Flower Hill said, “This was not a hurricane. It was a tropical storm. Hurricane Gloria seemed to have been handled a lot smoother and faster.” He questioned whether this was due to organizational issues with crews, or whether LIPA was understaffed. Shearer said that he was not intimately involved in the amount of staffing, and could not answer that question.

 Thomas Rini, superintendent of the Mineola Public Works Department, noted that when LIPA goes into a decentralized substation, it should be coordinated with the local municipalities. Shearer said, “That’s part of the ‘lessons learned’ process…. We want to make sure that all of the municipalities identify which roads have major issues and to create priority lists.”