In a crucially important cover story on Friday about the Long Island Power Authority’s performance before and after Hurricane Sandy plowed into the region on Oct. 29, Newsday reported that the utility failed to prepare for a big storm despite having made repeated commitments to the state that it would do just that.
The story confirms what had been a widespread suspicion: Many of the tens of thousands of customers without electricity on Long Island for up to two weeks by now might not have lost power — or might have seen it restored far more quickly — had LIPA taken certain steps to get ready. Newsday’s story describes a pattern of poor preparation, including under-funded tree-trimming, outdated computer systems, and the failure to make key improvements to equipment.
The depth of LIPA’s problems were known as far back as 2006, when a consulting firm hired by the utility pointed out deficiencies and made a range of recommendations. Notably, these included redesigning substations to reduce the risk of flood damage. As it turned out, nearly a third of LIPA’s 185 substations were forced offline during Sandy. After the 2006 report, LIPA announced $100 million over five years in so-called storm-hardening measures. It ended up spending only $62.5 million, according to Newsday.
In June of this year, the state took a look at LIPA’s storm readiness and declared it insufficient. It cited a lack of procedures for prioritizing repairs near hospitals and schools, for identifying and prioritizing downed wires, for communicating with customers, and for trimming trees. Newsday said LIPA does not meet the common industry standard of cutting back vegetation within 10 feet of power lines, opting for a cost-saving 6 feet. Worse, such work is done on a seven-or-eight-year cycle, not the recommended four years.
During Sandy, many of the outages reported on the Island were the result of limbs coming into contact with wires. What’s more, LIPA had killed a program of inspecting for weak and rotting poles five years ago and slashed its pole-replacement budget by more than two-thirds during that period, Newsday reported.
The prospects for a rapid turnaround at LIPA are not good. According to Newsday, the utility’s board tends to rubberstamp management without dissent, and the state’s efforts to provide more control of LIPA by the Public Service Commission have come to naught. This, as Long Island residents know all too well, comes at a high price: LIPA’s rates are among the highest in the United States. It is a pity that the hefty utility bills do not come with an equally sizable commitment to a robust infrastructure that can better bounce back from hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The solution must include better oversight by elected officials. By ignoring its own 2006 report and failing to live up to promises, LIPA has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to go it alone any longer.