Nassau County Legislators grilled PSEG Long Island President and COO Daniel Eichhorn for his company’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias at a committee meeting Monday, but questions about the company’s immediate next steps remained unclear.
Over the course of nearly two hours, Eichhorn fielded questions relating to PSEG Long Island’s preparedness, response and needed improvements, but ultimately, legislators could not get Eichhorn to detail what the company would change in the immediate future. Calling the company’s response to Isaias an “anomaly,” Eichhorn assured legislators numerous times that his company would conduct a “thorough after-action review” to assess failures in service and communication.
“There’s no hiding from the issues, we take full responsibility for what occurred, it wasn’t what we expected to have happen,” Eichhorn said. “I think we’ve performed well in other storms and we really have to get to the root cause of what happened here and make those improvements.”
After striking the island on Aug.4, Tropical Storm Isaias left more than 420,000 homes and businesses without power, some for more than a week, in what was seen as one of the company’s first major tests since taking over for the Long Island Power Authority after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Denise Ford (D-Long Beach), who chairs the legislature’s Hurricane Sandy Review Committee, announced last week that the committee would come together for the first time since May 2019 to question PSEG Long Island.
Eichhorn said the storm itself presented an “unusual challenge” given the clusters of outages around LI, but maintained that the company’s planning and preparation were effective based on the anticipated damage. Eichhorn said around 1,600 line workers from out of state arrived on the island the day of the storm via a mutual assistance organization, pushing the number of total line workers in the area to about 4,000.
But on questions of frequent communications failures, which infuriated customers for days as they attempted to call, text or the use the company’s website for updates, Eichhorn offered few resolutions outside of a re-evaluation following the after-action review. Eichhorn said the company’s estimated response times, which were continuously pushed back to the dismay of residents, occurred because of an underestimation of the damage.
“In this storm, what we found is when our crews were out working, instead of finding one damaged location to restore a neighborhood, it was multiple damaged locations,” Eichhorn said. “Those models that we were using proved to be much more optimistic than what our crews were seeing.”
For days, lawmakers have also demanded PSEG Long Island reimburse customers for food and medicine lost as a result of the outages. Although not announced at the hearing, soon after it on Monday, the company said that it would reimburse customers for those items if they lost power for at least 72 hours and apply by Sept. 16.
According to the policy, residential customers can receive up to $250 while commercial customers can receive up to $5,000 for food spoilage. Up to $300 will also be reimbursed for prescription medication spoilages.
Regarding a billing credit for customers over the days that power was lost, Eichhorn said the company had not had that discussion and would consider it as part of the after-action review. Throughout the hearing, legislators provided their own feedback and recommendations to Eichhorn, which ranged from replacing rotting wood poles to distributing more generators to coordinating more effectively with out of state crews.
Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), ranking member of the committee, said the company’s reaction to the storm was “extremely poor,” given both the relative weakness of the storm and the preparatory measures taken like tree trimming and grid fortification.
“I know we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on tree trimming, we’re like the third highest in the nation for our energy and our electric,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “So it’s not only that we expect more, but we’ve been told to expect more, that we were going to be able to handle this type of thing, this was not a hurricane, it wasn’t even close to Superstorm Sandy.”
Many legislators also emphasized the importance of protecting seniors and those on the critical customer care list, many of whom require power for their health-related devices and were still left without answers for days. Eichhorn said the protocol for placing people on the list will also be a thoroughly examined area in the after-action review.
Although public attendance was limited due to the coronavirus, some residents were given the opportunity to speak, including Dr. Cynthia Paulis of Massapequa Park, who slept in her car as constant efforts to contact the utility failed over a period of days. Paulis said she lost faith in a company that she had high hopes for after losing power for over two weeks following Sandy.
“We have a lot of seniors in our community, we have a lot of veterans and we have a lot of people that are disabled – we have so many people that rely on you, and you said we’ve got 1,500 people, we have 2,000 people,” Paulis said. “I have something on my phone right now that talks about 4,000 workers, so I said, ‘Wow this is great,’ but where were they?”
In a post-hearing press release issued Monday night, DeRiggi-Whitton expressed dissatisfaction towards Eichhorn’s responses, and said that Eichhorn “appears to have misinformed the committee,” in one instance regarding knowledge of traffic light outages.
“Although he claimed that PSEG-LI had no way of knowing what traffic signals were without power during the storm, later testimony by Deputy County Executive Brian Schneider revealed that the department of public works provided a comprehensive list of critical post-storm needs,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “Including the location of every traffic signal without power as identified by the County’s Traffic Management Center to PSEG-LI by the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 4.”
Moving forward, the legislature itself can issue further recommendations, but it does not have significant authority over PSEG Long Island. However, the company will also have to answer to New York State legislators at a hearing on Thursday co-chaired by Senator Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach).