Verizon workers work to replace downed telephone poles with new ones along Noyac Road near Long Beach during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
By Tessa Raebeck
A year after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) continues its efforts to amend the damage to its power lines, substations and reputation.
“You have to practice to be prepared from this,” Nicholas Lizanich, LIPA’s vice president of transmission and distribution operations said on Tuesday.
In the aftermath of Sandy and the nor’easter that followed it, LIPA, which serves 1.1 million customers across Long Island, had some 40,000 damaged locations throughout the island. Fallen trees and immense flooding left thousands of customers without service; many homeowners went without power for weeks following the storms.
“My experience with LIPA during the storm was the fact that the workmen who were on the ground and working out of the substations — I thought they did a tremendous job,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. “I thought where the problem was with LIPA was with the upper level management and their communications with the public and their coordination of storm recovery. The fault was not with the workers, the fault was with the management.”
According to Lizanich, LIPA recognized the flaws in its system and has worked to strengthen it during the past year. Since the storm, some 2,000 miles of wires have been trimmed, 1,000 problematic trees were identified and removed and around $10 million has been spent on replacing damaged poles. The agency is doubling its investment in tree removal and tree trimming activity in 2014.
LIPA has 12 substations in low-lying areas on the south shore and all 12 incurred damage during Hurricane Sandy. Immediately following the storm, LIPA began a process of replacing the substations’ equipment.
“We can’t afford to take a bunch of stations out of service to replace them so we have to work in and around the live energizing equipment and replace a piece at a time,” explained Lizanich. “So this is turning out to be a multi-year effort for us … and that’s the real issue we’re dealing with.”
Lizanich anticipates that the replacement process will not be finished until sometime in early 2015. In the meantime, LIPA installed generators to support the system, as well as temporary walls resembling giant sandbags that surround each vulnerable location. Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a hired consulting firm, Australian-based WorleyParsons, LIPA has identified mitigation steps that involve elevating the substations to avoid flooding should another major storm occur.
Because LIPA is a state authority, it was eligible to access FEMA funding.
“We spent some $800 million in restoration costs associated with Sandy and were able to work with FEMA to get reimbursed for those dollars,” said Lizanich. “Between FEMA and the state, what we were able to do is cover the costs of these rebuilds, these mitigation steps and these restorations without having there be customer impact on rates.”
Working to improve its technology and overall response procedure, LIPA is in the process of implementing electronic data tablets which will enable damage assessors in the field to collect information and communicate it quickly. A hundred people have been hired as communications liaisons, “whose sole effort is going to be to help us better communicate with customers,” said Lizanich.
Those liaisons are temporary, as this summer LIPA is investing in a new Outage Management System (OMS).
“That’s a new system that basically helps us affect restoration by tying the customers and damage together so that we can dispatch crews more readily and have it be more efficient,” explained Lizanich.
The company started working with social networking following tropical storm Irene and has since expanded those efforts considerably, said Lizanich, who emphasized LIPA’s determination to enhance customer and community outreach.
“Since Sandy, we’ve obtained email addresses of over a half a million of our customers as an alternate means to communicate,” said Lizanich, who encourages all LIPA customers to provide the company with their email address so that they can receive vital information and updates should phones go down.
“One of the big things that we learned during Sandy,” he said. “We opened up several local command field offices in the hard hit, damaged, ravaged areas and the flooding areas so we were more accessible to our customers. We actually see that as a huge enhancement to our process going forward.”
Lizanich has a running count of the days that have passed since Sandy (358 on Tuesday).
“Quite a bit’s been done,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of reinvestments in the system, we’ve continued with the current plan of investment in terms of maintenance and such, we’ve been forceful working with FEMA for the resource dollars and have not just put the physical stuff in the field but also the technology aspects as well.”
Following tropical storm Irene, in October 2011 LIPA decided to adopt an improved business model and in December 2011 the board of trustees selected Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) to implement that model and run the day-to-day operation of LIPA’s electric utility business beginning on January 1, 2014. PSEG will replace National Grid, which was under contract with LIPA during Irene and Sandy and will be phased out by the end of this year.
“One of the problems was you had LIPA and National Grid and there wasn’t clarity on who was responsible for what and I think that’s what led to a lot of the miscommunication,” explained Thiele. “Under this new agreement, PSEG will definitely be the prime entity responsible for storm response. Accountability will be with PSEG.”
PSEG was chosen to replace National Grid prior to Sandy, but since the hurricane the contract has been amended to give the utility more responsibility.
“PSEG has been the utility for most of New Jersey for quite some time and their customer satisfaction ratings are very good,” said Thiele. “PSEG on all accounts is a better and more responsible company than National Grid.”