Long Island Lawmakers Propose Utility Reforms After Isaias Chaos

Originally published in The Long Island Press on August 20, 2020.

As the cleanup continues more than two weeks after Tropical Storm Isaias caused widespread power outages on Long Island, lawmakers are touting an array of legislative proposals aimed at ensuring utility companies handle the next weather-related crisis more smoothly.

PSEG Long Island’s response to the Aug. 4. storm, which left more than 420,000 homes and businesses on the island without power — some for more than a week — was widely panned for delayed response times and communications failures. Now, as the Atlantic Hurricane Season enters its peak, lawmakers at the local and New York State level are mapping out how to avoid a repeat of the chaotic response. 

“Moving forward, it’s clear we need to put in strict guard rails and consumer protections to ensure that these companies are prepared for the next storm,” said state Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck). “So that we never go through hell like this again.” 

Kaplan has introduced seven bills at the state level meant to address communication and standards for the prioritization of power restoration. Among the proposals are measures to keep cellular networks running, ensure proper communication channels between ratepayers and utility companies, allow more individuals to report downed power lines and clearly define who qualifies for prioritized restoration, including the medically vulnerable and first responders.

State Senator Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), who labeled the response effort by PSEG-LI as “unconscionable” and called for the resignation of the utility company’s leadership, proposed a bill that would allow the state Public Service Commission to review the performance of the Long Island Power Authority during a declared state of emergency. 

Gaughran also introduced a bill on August 12 that would require utility providers to give the PSC an emergency response plan each year. All of those proposed measures precede a planned hearing with PSEG-LI brass on Thursday, which will be co-chaired by State Senator Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). 

Earlier on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would not provide PSEG-LI with its $10 million performance bonus included in its contract, and said that the state Department of Public Service will issue violations to both PSEG-LI and other utility providers. 

“The response to tropical storm Isaias by the electric utilities was completely unacceptable,” Cuomo said. “Fifteen days later and we are still hearing complaints from families and businesses.” 

Cuomo added that he would introduce his own legislation to “expedite and clarify revocation procedures” for utility companies like PSEG-LI. 

“These utility companies predict when we’re going to have storms and when we’re going to have emergencies,” Cuomo said. “That’s the art form of the business and what we pay them for. They need to do better and we are holding them accountable.”   

On the local level, various lawmakers, including Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, scored a long-awaited victory after calling on PSEG-LI for days to reimburse customers for food and medicine lost due to the outages. On Monday, the company announced 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. 

The Nassau County Legislature’s Hurricane Sandy Review Committee also convened for the first time in more than a year on Wednesday to question PSEG-LI President and COO Daniel Eichhorn, marking his first appearance in front of a government body since Isaias. For nearly two hours of testimony, county lawmakers pressed Eichhorn on his company’s preparedness, response and future plans, but Eichhorn ultimately could not specify what actions would be taken to fix the issues experienced until PSEG-LI completes a “thorough after-action review.” 

“We admit that we were not happy with our communications, we were not happy with the impact it had on customers and your constituents,” Eichhorn told Rep. Josh Lafazan (I-Syosset) at the hearing. “It’s not the level of service we expect to provide, and we’re going to fix it.” 

Still, Eichhorn’s testimony and assurances were not enough for legislators, including Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), who said there was still “no excuse” for PSEG-LI to have mismanaged the storm response and its poor communication with customers and government officials. 

“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,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “This was not a hurricane, it wasn’t even close to Superstorm Sandy.”

While the county itself does not have significant authority over the power company, plans to continue oversight of PSEG-LI are already in the works through an additional hearing once the review is released, according to a spokesman for the county Legislature’s Republican majority. At Wednesday’s hearing, Eichhorn would not commit to a completion date for that review. 

Another area of focus for lawmakers on the local level has been protecting senior citizens. On August 14, Lafazan proposed a bill in the Nassau County Legislature that would require any new development in the county for residents 55 and older to have standby generators capable of producing up to four days worth of power. 

Lafazan said that many seniors rely on power for their perishable medication or medical devices, one of several reasons why he said PSEG-LI’s response was “woefully inadequate.” 

Don Epstein, a treasurer at the Woodbury Gardens senior apartment complex in the Town of Oyster Bay, which houses people 62 and older, said residents were told by PSEG-LI to visit a friend or relative with power if needed, and if they could not, to call 911 to bring them to the hospital, putting them at an increased risk for COVID-19. 

“We’ve got people with no power, scared and our average age is about 82, 83 in our development,” Epstein said. “They can’t survive with no power, no landline… It’s been eight years since Superstorm Sandy and still PSEG’s communications are horrid, they need to get this straightened out.”