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Commission to investigate response to power outages; Con Ed apologizes

Rob Astorino

County Executive Robert Astorino speaks at a Nov. 8 press conference at the Westchester County Center to announce its opening as a FEMA disaster recovery center.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Nov. 13 to establish a commission to investigate the response, preparation and management of New York’s utility companies in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, five days after Consolidated Edison Inc. issued an apology for its response.

The commission will be tasked to undertake a thorough review of all actions taken by the power companies before and after the storm, and make specific recommendations to reform and modernize oversight, regulation and management of New York’s power delivery services.

“From Hurricane Irene … to Hurricane Sandy, over the past two years New York has experienced some of the worst natural disasters in our state’s history,” Cuomo said in a press release. “As we adjust to the reality of more frequent major weather incidents, we must study and learn from these past experiences to prepare for the future.”

The commission’s mandate includes examining and making recommendations to reform the overlapping responsibilities and missions of New York’s utility companies and the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Con Edison’s apology came at a Nov. 8 press conference at the Westchester County Center, which is being used a FEMA disaster recovery center.

Kevin Burke, chairman and CEO of Con Edison, apologized for the outages and poor communication to residents and elected officials and said that the company was simply not prepared for the storm that left more than 975,000 customers without power. Con Edison’s previous high was 200,000 customers without power.

“This has been incredibly frustrating,” Burke said. “We are working around the clock. This is the worst storm we have ever seen. We will continue to get crews here and we are asking for further assistance. We have people working out of Playland doing whatever we can.”

Burke, who lives in Upper Manhattan and did not lose power, said Con Edison will evaluate its response in the coming weeks.

“We underestimated the storm surge,” Burke said. “If we knew, we would’ve done better. This storm came in greater than we planned for. We will go back and learn what we can do better. We will improve. We are focused on getting power back.”

Other elected officials have been critical of Con Edison and New York State Gas and Electric Corp.’s (NYSEG) response to the storm. NYSEG did not send a representative to the conference, claiming that power had been restored, even though some of their customers still were without power.

At the press conference, Burke’s apology rang hollow. Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D-Pleasantville), who was without power for 10 days, said Con Edison should be unplugged, while County Legislator Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) noted he was within spitting distance of Burke. Kaplowitz represents New Castle, where many residents were still without power more than a week after the storm.

“It is terrible,” Kaplowitz said. “They should unplug his apartment. We have probably lost more than $100 million as a direct result of these prolonged power outages. It is not acceptable.”

Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) said she didn’t understand why Con Edison’s response was so poor.

“Nobody seemed to know anything,” Lowey said. “The liaison was a nice person but couldn’t seem to direct me anywhere. There are too many people without power in the freezing cold.”

Lowey said that Con Edison should’ve had crews in place in the event of outages, and that cleanup work by public works employees was blocked by Con Edison.

“There has to be a better way to communicate,” Lowey said. “We should’ve been prepared as soon as we knew the storm was coming. There are people that are truly suffering.”

Con Edison representatives planned to be at the County Center to help answer residents’ questions and complaints concerning their power.

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner has been a frequent critic of Con Edison’s response, as many Greenburgh residents were left in the dark for more than a week.

Feiner announced the formation of a citizens committee to lobby the PSC to change how Con Edison operates.

“Our region has had at least one major outage a year for a few years,” Feiner said in an email to residents. “We must make sure that the nightmare which our communities experienced after Hurricane Sandy never happens again.”

The committee’s first meeting will be at Greenburgh Town Hall Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. Resident looking to join the committee should email Feiner at pfeiner@greenburghny.com.

Feiner is looking to have Con Edison work around the clock until power is restored, and to hire licensed electricians to work to restore power. Feiner would like the PSC to investigate when Con Edison hired out-of-state crews and how they dealt with the elderly and disabled.

“I received calls from family members who have spouses who depend on oxygen, some who were bedridden, or had surgeries,” Feiner said.

The PSC has not made any public statements about the response from utility companies to the storm.

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