New York State elected officials had a chance to question regional utilities regarding response issues during Tropical Storm Isaias on Aug. 4 and the days and weeks following, in a hearing on Thursday, Aug. 20.
“We knew this storm was coming, yet we seemed to be ill-prepared,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate majority leader, to open the hearing. “We’re not looking for excuses; we want answers.”
The hearing comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state’s Department of Public Service to investigate the failures by PSEG Long Island, ConEdison, and other utilities in the wake of extended power outages and failed communications.
“This was more than inconvenience, it was completely unacceptable and a public health and safety concern,” said John Rhodes, chairman of the Public Safety Commission.
After a couple weeks into the investigation, Rhodes reported that there were response failures. There was inadequate and inaccurate communication in regards to power restoration estimates and reported outages. The commission also found that PSEG Long Island did not have sufficient crews to handle the damage, and did not coordinate effectively with local municipalities. The PSC recommended in their initial report to double the amount of crews on retainer for powerful storms, test and refine capacity at communication centers, and coordinate improved plans with local governments. They are also demanding that utilities have a presence in local Emergency Operations Centers to help coordinate responses.
Daniel Eichorn, president and chief operating officer of PSEG Long Island, confirmed that there were communications and outage map failures.
“The Isaias restoration process did not meet anyone’s expectations,” Eichorn said at the hearing. “The accuracy and timeliness of information our customers received was not acceptable and we will improve. The issues our customers experienced in contacting us were also not acceptable and will be addressed.”
PSEG Long Island is currently performing an internal review of their storm response and will make adjustments as needed. They expect the full review to be completed in about a month. The PSC and Long Island Power Authority will also be conducting an independent review in three stages, set to be released in 30, 90, and 180 days. The major issue came from the failure of the utility’s outage map and work processes, Eichorn said. The issues caused duplicate work orders to go through, and employees had to manually sort through for legitimate work. These response systems undergo a stress test two times per year, with the most recent one in June. Eichorn did not give specifics on the volume used for those tests.
“The failure of these key systems is indefensible, regardless of the challenges of the storm or with third-party vendors,” said Thomas Falcone, CEO of LIPA.
Eichorn said that despite the technical issues, PSEG was prepared for the storm and was able to respond. The utility deployed over 4,000 line workers and 1,200 tree trimmers to assess damage.
“Our planning and preparation was effective,” Eichorn said, adding that the outage map was back online within 24 hours, but continued to experience intermittent issues.
Officials also questioned the effectiveness of looking to place electrical wires underground, in an effort to prevent storms from causing as much damage.
“It’s clearly time to revisit the cost-benefit calculation associated with undergrounding,” Rhodes said.
Despite a threat from Cuomo to revoke the agreement between the state and PSEG Long Island, Eichorn said the region is better off since the utility took over in 2013.
“In the last six and a half years, PSEG Long Island as well as LIPA, has made tremendous improvement for customers,” he said, citing approval rates, infrastructure improvements, and more.