Compounding natural forces with man-made disaster

LIPA earns distinction among most poorly run utilities

The Long Island Power Authority has come under much scrutiny in the days and weeks following Superstorm Sandy. Granted, Sandy left a lot of destruction in her wake, but LIPA had a strong hand in a disaster of its own.

A LIPA customer expresses their anger. Credit: @MattMinerXVX

There is more than enough blame for everyone in this situation -- and both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and LIPA are passing it around.

LIPA's Excuses

The consensus is that the government-run utility should have seen this coming and been prepared, especially after a scathing state report condemning LIPA for its lack of preparation after last year's Hurricane Irene, insufficient tree trimming, and its antiquated 25-year old computer system that is intended to pinpoint outages and update customers.

In LIPA's defense, it says that the storm was worse than they ever imagined and has led to the delays in power restoration. LIPA does acknowledge that their computer system needs upgrading into the current decade but explains that it is an extremely long process because of the system's magnitude -- at least 18 months to 2 years. A consultant deemed the computer system unacceptable back in 2006. LIPA claims a new upgraded system will be functioning next year.

An interesting note is that utilities -- like Consolidated Edison, Public Service Electric & Gas and Central Jersey Power and Light -- were hit with the same superstorm, experiencing the same widespread damage and power outages, had customers' lights and heat back on within days -- not weeks.

Adding to the restoration challenges was maintaining a steady supply of utility poles. It has been widely reported that flatbed trucks with 40-foot-long poles headed to the East Coast to reach the affected areas and replace utility poles knocked down or splintered by Sandy.

There is more than enough blame for everyone in this situation -- and both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and LIPA are passing it around. ___________________________

Still, suppliers argued that they were struggling to keep up with demand, especially for thicker poles, known as Class 1 and Class 2. These are used widely across the East Coast and are harder to come by, Chris Slonaker, a sales manager at Bridgewell Resources and one of the suppliers, told USA Today.

The excuse could be plausible. But what wasn't widely reported was that LIPA already had those poles -- well in advance of Superstorm Sandy. But their leadership was so bad that either no one saw them, no one knew what to do with them or no one cared.

In a live television broadcast, CNBC revealed that LIPA had all the power poles it could ever need -- sitting unused and uninstalled in a pile that, apparently, no one even saw.

Passing blame

LIPA's board is chosen by the governor and lawmakers, but Governor Cuomo blasted LIPA for failing customers and threatened to take utility licenses away. Cuomo takes no responsibility for the man-made disaster that is LIPA and instead deflects the blame to National Grid, Long Island's actual power provider and a state-regulated utility, while promising to hold them accountable.

Cuomo has called for an investigation of the region's utilities, citing a lack of communication, preparation and management.

Some members of a Northeast utility's oversight panel called for Cuomo to take more responsibility. LIPA did the same.

"The governor needs to take responsibility," Matthew Cordaro, co-chair of the Suffolk County Legislature's LIPA Oversight Committee, told the Chicago Tribune. "He has not appointed the CEO for two years. LIPA reports directly to the governor, so he can fire the chairman at will."

Insult to Injury

LIPA customers got a more recent blow when they received bills that charged them for a full month of power. LIPA has said that their customers can carry these bills forward to the next month to offset the amount of time they suffered without power.

A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of all LIPA customers.