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Cuomo's Panel Investigates Power Company Failures After Sandy

The state-sponsored Moreland Commission explores why and how local power companies fell short in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam.

After superstorm Sandy pummeled the Lower Hudson Valley in October of 2012, about 70-percent of households in the region were cast into the realm of no electricity.

The days—and sometimes weeks—of darkness that the region endured are directly connected to blunders by utilities companies in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties, Governor Andrew Cuomo has stressed.

And Thursday evening, a panel of local experts assembled by Cuomo delved into the companies' failures, spoke with affected residents and sought solutions.

The Moreland Commission—a cabinet of legal, engineering and financial professionals—met in Purchase yesterday to further explore the shortcomings of ConEd, Orange and Rockland Utilities (O&R) and other power companies in the tri-county region.

Benjamin Lawsky, the state's Superintendent of Financial Services, is acting co-chair of the group. Before delving into a sometimes-scathing review of the Lower Hudson Valley's power providers, he outlined the commission's vision.

"We are charged with finding out what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it," he said.

Lawsky and his colleagues have already held a slate of similar meetings on Long Island and in Manhattan, placing the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA)—a serious Sandy offender—under the microscope.

In the wake of Sandy, 56-percent of Westchester power customers lost power, along with 80-percent of Putnam customers and 74-percent of Rockland customers, Lawsky said.

These are statistics that dwarf outage numbers from previous squalls, like Hurricane Irene in August of 2011, according to commission member and Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice.

And the cardinal reason is clear, Lawsky noted: "The six utility [companies] in New York, and LIPA, operate as natural monopolies."

Lawsky added little competition and "toothless" government oversight allow the companies to function with limited regard for the consumer.

"In Westchester, this may prevent companies from doing tree trimming or grid prepping before a storm—there's no incentive," Lawsky continued.

A parade of residents delivering post-Sandy testimonials were swift to assail power providers. Pat Anderson, a spokeswoman with the United Way of Westchester and Putnam, said untruths were sown prior to the tempest.

"In many communities, people had been told by power companies that they were on special needs lists," Anderson said, citing elderly resident dependent on oxygen who believed their homes would receive power first. "[But] there were no priority lists being utilized."

"If that's true, it's a huge problem," Lawsky responded.

Alex Gromack, the town supervisor of Clarkstown in Rockland County, blasted O&R's response.

"Communication and reliable information by O&R was abysmal during this past storm, as well as the previous two," he said. "We can not accept the excuse from utility companies that these storms are 'unprecedented.'"

Gromack went on to say several residents spotted crews idling instead of mending downed lines, and noted it was nearly impossible to pin down a specific time that a household would once again have power.

"There seems to be no consequences, no accountability," said Howard Philips, the supervisor of Haverstraw, a town in Rockland.

One resident said his home, which had power, served as a consummate refugee center for friends and family—and one acquaintance who recently had open-heart surgery.

Lawsky and Rice suggested possible solutions, like bolstering state oversight by hiring more staff, and overhauling LIPA's inner workings.

Strengthening the state's ability to level fines would be helpful, too, Rice said, calling the current penal measures "weak." Now, New York can fine power companies no more than $100,000 per day, no matter the violations.

Rice recommended tweaks that would allow the state to fine ConEd up to $2 million per day, and National Grid up to $750,000 per day.

"That's significant money," she said.

Laura H January 26, 2013 at 12:26 PM
Tree trimming? Our utility company destroyed the natural beauty of White Plains. They hired people to hack our trees down up and down our beautiful block (ironically enough called Woodcrest). The ones that were spared were "trimmed" in the ugliest and most bizarre shapes and angles. I hope this practice which has gone on for the last few years seemingly unmonitored ends immediately. These trees were healthy and not close enough to any wires etc for them to pose a danger. The residents of this street (many who bought their homes here because of the attractiveness of the area and woodlands) had no say in this demolition.
JJ January 26, 2013 at 04:53 PM
I wonder if Cuomo will be as "QUICK" on this as he was the gun bill that he enacted? My money is that he will NOT be. All he has to do here is continue to "bluff" the public that he's really doing something worthwhile for them. He comes from a political family but he still can't fill the shoes that his Father left and that's showing everyday that he's in office.

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