How Many LIPA Guys Does It Take To Open A Manhole?

lipaWith the event of Superstorm Sandy, many of us here on Long Island have been blasting the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), and their horrendous performance dealing with the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. With over 160,00 customers still without power in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens, people are understandably reaching their breaking point. Eleven days without power and heat is enough to drive anyone crazy. 

Of course, the easy target is LIPA, and many have attacked the utility at every opportunity. Because I have heard so many rumors surrounding LIPA and their mishandling of the situation, I decided to go out to some of the visiting power crews and find out the real story. I mean, if we are going to blame LIPA, let’s at least make sure that they’ve done something wrong before we crucify them, right? It seems the responsible thing to do. So I went and found out. The results are pretty shocking, and if this storm and it’s resulting devastation doesn’t change LIPA policy then it is time to throw out the entire company, they are rotten to the core.

In my neighborhood alone, over 6000 people are still without power. Because of the darkness, two homes in the area have been burglarized, and in both cases the perpetrator confronted the homeowners. In the first instance the residents were tied up, and in the second instance, the burglar fired his gun into the ceiling. Needless to say, being with power this long is not only frustrating, but it is becoming downright dangerous. Not only do you have to worry about freezing to death in the middle of the night, but now you have to worry about fending over looters as well. Unbelievable.

Because conditions like this exist all over Long Island and Queens, utility crews from out of state are pouring in to help get us all back on line as fast as possible. You might think that LIPA would welcome these crews with open arms and streamline the process of joining the workforce so that lines get repaired as soon as possible. Unfortunately it seems that LIPA did not prepare for the storm at all, and are making it hard for these out-of-state crews to do their work.

The first crew I spoke with was from the Scott Powerline and Utility Company from Louisiana, of all places. If anyone knows how to deal with the aftermath of storms, it’s these guys. The man I spoke with, who didn’t want to give his name, complained to us that LIPA was nowhere to be found. When we asked him what he thought of LIPA using such an antiquated power grid, he responded with “We have yet to see LIPA around here.” Surprised, I said “really?” He said “We haven’t seen a LIPA truck around here at all.” Of course, my natural question was to ask where he got his orders from then. He told us that there were two people from National Grid that were tasked with showing him around. We tried to find these National Grid workers to get a comment, but they were nowhere within the 2-block area that we searched. Curious as to where people like him were being housed, I asked where he was staying. He said that they were being housed at a local inn, but then added “Finally!” I asked him what that meant, and he told us that he and his crew had been sleeping inside of an 18-wheel trailer-truck until a few days ago. Unbelievable. Apparently LIPA had no place for these people to go for a hot meal and a warm bed until recently. You’d think that the Long Island Power Authority would have planned ahead and guessed that in the aftermath of Sandy they might need a place for these crews to call home. It’s not as if we didn’t have hurricane Irene a mere year ago, which also resulted in out-of-state crews descending on Long Island. Utility companies like Baltimore Gas & Electric had crews on standby in anticipation of Irene, and again had out-of-state crews on standby for Sandy. Why LIPA didn’t is a mystery.

Of course, being a responsible writer, I didn’t want to impugn LIPA on the word of just one out-of-state crew. That crew might have had a bad experience that isn’t commensurate with the overall response from our beloved power company. So I found a crew that came from the L.E. Myers Utility Company in Decatur, Illinois. When I spoke with them, a very familiar picture began taking shape.

Speaking with a utility worker who also wished to remain anonymous, I learned that his team had been up here on Long Island for just about two weeks. His crew did have a warm bed, but, unfortunately it was located near JFK airport. That’s at least a 30-40 minute ride for their trucks, which means more gas used than would be necessary if they were housed locally. If the dormitory plans were devised ahead of time, who knows how much fuel could be saved, both diesel and regular. Fuel and money, that is.

Since we already knew the housing situation for these folks was a mish-mash, at best, I pressed on to another issue. I asked him what the biggest problem was with getting everyone in my area back on line. He responded, “The biggest problem is that everything goes through back yards, and we can’t get the trucks in.” In other words, our power lines that still run on poles are tangled between trees and houses, and there is no easy access. This would not be an issue if LIPA spent the money to bury the lines. I mean, we do pay the fifth-highest rates in the country, after all. He went on to tell us that they were trying anything they could to get the poles back up, including rigging them up with ropes and pulleys and simply yanking.

We then asked about a rumor that was spreading in my area that LIPA had run out of the actual poles, and asked him if there was an issue with getting any of the equipment they needed. Surprisingly, he said that no, poles weren’t an issue, but then I asked him if LIPA was talking to them about the supply issue, because they certainly weren’t talking to their customers.

According to this worker, right before we showed up, LIPA had just visited. The representative from LIPA had told the out-of-state crew that the next project on their list was now being scrubbed. In other words, people who should have gotten their power restored today were now going to have to wait longer. A shame for sure, but the reason why the job was cancelled is the real kicker.

Around here, our main power lines run underground. In order to reach them, the workers must access the sewer relays, and that requires removing the cover that restricts access to these areas. Well, when the LIPA worker showed up, he told the Decatur crew that two people were needed to remove this cover. When the out-of-state crew went to help the single LIPA man remove this “2-man cover,” the LIPA representative stopped them in their tracks. According to the man we talked to, the LIPA representative said “no, it has to be two LIPA guys who remove the cover. All our guys are tied up so we’ll just come back to it later.” So the out-of-state crew was left twiddling their thumbs because LIPA wouldn’t let a non-LIPA worker help lift off a sewer lid.

The Decatur crew went on to verify, as we heard before, that it’s National Grid that is on the streets giving the orders. Unfortunately, not only is LIPA not talking to its customers, but they are also not talking to their own people at National Grid. According to the Decatur crew, “It’s a process because we can come in and see what’s going on and what we need to do but it’s a headache to get through to LIPA.” Stunned, I asked him if they were allowed to do anything without the green light from LIPA and he said “We can’t do anything until they clear it out.” Unreal. In a time when the process of getting people back on line should take precedence above all else, it seems that corporate red tape and a non-existent chain of command are preventing customers from getting their lights back. I couldn’t say it better than the worker from Decatur – “They act like they just don’t give a shit! I mean these are your customers!”

Not wanting to keep the crew from their work for too long, I asked him, just out of curiosity, if he knew how much we paid for our power. When I told him I have paid bills of $1500 for one cycle, he said, “yeah I heard you guys pay like 80% more than the rest of the country.” Then he told me the most shocking thing that I had heard all day. “My electricity bill back home, during the summer, is maybe $48 or $50 bucks for the month.” If I didn’t have a defibrillator installed, I may have had a second heart attack right there on the street. For those of you who don’t do math, that’s 25 times less than we pay, and I’m rounding down.

So, here we are, stuck with a power company that obviously doesn’t put its customers first, and doesn’t have the care or ability to effect the repairs and upgrades that need to be made to stabilize our local grid. Surprising, considering we pay one of the highest rates for power in the entirety of the United States. All I can say is thank you to all the out-of-state crews who have so generously traveled many miles to come and assist us in our time of need. Unfortunately, the way they are being treated is akin to a slap in the face, and we are just damn lucky they are willing to stay until the job is done. One of the workers we talked to told us he hopes to be home by Thanksgiving. I too, truly hope that he is able to return to his family soon, but if LIPA has their way, he won’t be able to leave until seven different supervisors clear it through their supervisors, who, in turn, have to clear it with the original seven supervisors again.