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utilities do appear to have performed better this time than in past disasters like the massive flooding of 2006

State investigates power companies' response to Irene and Lee

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Under orders from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state's utility regulatory agency is taking a look at how power companies responded to the storms Irene and Lee and their aftermath.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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Cuomo asked the Public Service commission to make a “detailed and aggressive review” of the performance of the state’s major utility companies before, during and after storms Irene and Lee.

The governor, in a statement, told the commission that the probe should include the adequacy of disaster planning, efficiency of efforts to restore power and the companies’ communication with their customers.

The PSC promptly launched its review Thursday. Spokesman James Denn says the PSC intends to conduct a “thorough investigation of the utilities’ performance”.

At the meeting, PSC staff offered their first comprehensive report of the power and telephone line damage after Irene and Lee.

It finds nearly one million people were left without power after Irene ravaged the northeast on August 28th. Flooding and mudslides from Irene and tropical storm Lee resulted in 9500 customers’ gas service being shut off for safety reasons. 735,000 land line telephone customers were  without service due to 4900 downed lines and more than 560 broken or damaged utility poles.

PSC Commissioners offered few criticisms of the utilities. In fact, some praised the companies, including Patricia Acampora, who said Consolidated Edison “stood out”, and did a “pretty good job of executing their plan”, in response to Irene.

Commissioner Maureen Harris also offered support for the companies, saying some utilities “did a fabulous job”.

Acampora says she does have concerns, though, over reports that some utilities did not communicate well with customers. She suggests a forum be held including utility representatives, the PSC and consumer groups.

PSC spokesman James Denn says utilities do appear to have performed better this time than in past disasters like the massive flooding of 2006.

He says these companies made a special effort to keep local government leaders informed of their plans. And, he says, Governor Cuomo and his top aides “put a fine point” on informing the utilities that they would be expected to be more accountable and responsive this time around.

According to a report in the New York Times, Cuomo's chief of staff, Larry Schwartz, tracked down the CEO of National Grid in Europe before Irene hit, to make sure adequate contractors were on call to repair damage anticipated to the power structure.

But Denn says utilities also faced some special obstacles caused by the powerful storms. Roads washed out, so power company trucks could not reach downed poles and power lines, and 200 foot tall transmission towers fell into the Mohawk River, which delayed restoration of service.

“They had to resort to helicopters”, said Denn, who says the costs of the repairs are likely to be “significant”. He says it’s too early to tell yet whether electric and gas rates will rise as a result of clean up costs incurred from the storms.

And PSC Chair, Garry Brown, says that even while the review is beginning, many utilities, local governments, and residents, are still in the middle of clean up.

“It’s not over,” Brown said. Thousands in the Southern Tier remain without power or gas service.

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