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One week after storm, North Fork residents on the ‘horrible’ communication from PSEG

For six days, a downed wire lay across the front yard of Marion Wipf’s property on West Creek Avenue in Cutchogue. The fire department placed traffic cones around it, to keep people from going over it.

For six days, Ms. Wipf was without power, despite estimates from PSEG-Long Island that all outages in the region would be restored Friday, then Saturday and eventually Sunday.

Finally, on Monday morning, crews showed up at her home and the lights came back on about noon. The same could not be said for some of her Cutchogue neighbors.

“The elderly community is a big part of this town.”

JACKIE HULSE

By Tuesday, exactly one week after Tropical Storm Isaias ripped through the North Fork, knocking out power for more than 5,000 local PSEG customers, power had been restored to all but 106 of those homes and businesses. For the bulk of those remaining powerless, repairs were not expected to be complete until Wednesday afternoon.

“I am so livid,” Ms. Wipf said soon after her service restored, allowing everyday appliances we often take for granted, like her refrigerator, to power back up. “I will write PSEG a horrible letter. Their communication system is absolutely horrible. I have spent at least 10 hours calling, being put on hold and then getting disconnected.”

She’s not alone.

In Wading River, Jay Hulse relies on a power source for oxygen therapy. The 80-year-old retired potato farmer was among the lucky ones who didn’t lose power when the storm did significant damage in his hamlet. Then, around 6 p.m. Saturday, his house went dark, leaving him with no way to hook up the oxygen he relies on overnight. It turns out nearby repairs caused his and three neighboring properties to lose power.

“My aunt explained [to a PSEG rep] that he needs his oxygen to get through the night,” recalled Mr. Hulse’s granddaughter Jackie, who lives next door. “They said to call 911 if he runs out of oxygen.”

After more than 24 hours with difficulties getting through to PSEG again or getting anyone to address the situation, the Hulses turned to Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who had already found success reaching out on behalf of other constituents. At around 2 a.m. Monday, several hours after Ms. Kent contacted PSEG on their behalf and more 30 hours after the initial outage, the Hulses had power again.

Some of the worst damage from the storm was reported in Wading River. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Ms. Kent said she first took the initiative after seeing lots of comments on social media from town residents who couldn’t get through to PSEG or had trouble getting any sort of response to their outages. So she came up with a plan to call overnight, when she figured fewer people would be calling. After identifying herself as a councilperson, she was connected to a supervisor and she emailed him a list of addresses with outages. She then followed up on behalf of Mr. Hulse.

“The reason I was able to get [him] moved up to be done immediately is because when I explained that he was on an oxygen machine they marked him as a ‘life support equipment customer,’ ” Ms. Kent later wrote in an email. “That may be something helpful for others to know in the future.”

Ms. Hulse said it was a scary situation and she’s sure her grandfather wasn’t the only older person without power for an extended period.

“The elderly community is a big part of this town,” she said.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said seniors were the biggest concern this week.

“We were most concerned about the senior citizen developments and mobile home parks that depend on electricity for respirators or oxygen or seizure monitors that depend on the internet,” she said. “I would ask that [PSEG] come up with a better plan for those people in the interim, and that their systems were functioning properly so people could actually reach them and get answers.”

A Southold Town crew works to clean up brush during the storm. Town officials questioned why PSEG wasn’t also in the field as the storm hit last Tuesday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

“Normally they would have trucks parked here in anticipation, but you didn’t see that.”

SCOTT RUSSELL

PSEG is facing mounting scrutiny over communications breakdowns in the aftermath of the storm, including upcoming state hearings to review the utility’s failings and a likely investigation by the state’s public service commission and attorney general.

Locally, elected officials in both towns have expressed frustration.

“This is one of the worst failures I’ve seen,” Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said last Thursday, when he had already sent out more than 125 locations with outages impacting multiple homes and businesses. “Our dispatchers were going crazy. I was then emailing them our list because no one could get through.

“Even in [Superstorm] Sandy you could get through,”n he said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell agreed.

“We went through Sandy pretty well,” he said. “Normally they would have trucks parked here in anticipation, but you didn’t see that now.”

At a press conference Sunday, PSEG-Long Island president Dan Eichorn said he believed the utility “did a very good job of preparing for it, but our communication was not up to our expectations.”

“We know that created a lot of angst,” he conceded.

Mr. Eichorn said he believes any outside agency that launches an inquiry into the utility’s restoration efforts will find it did a “satisfactory job.”

But even after Sunday’s press conference, at which Mr. Eichorn declined to back off a prior commitment to have all outages restored within hours, a proclamation that did not ring true, complaints about PSEG’s handling of the storm continued to roll in to the utility itself, on social media and to local news outlets.

John Josephson of Orient watched with exasperation as he and his neighbors were repeatedly dropped from the PSEG outage map this week. And when it was listed on the site, it was showing up as separate outages, he said.

“It was one outage affecting seven homes,” he wrote Tuesday, one day after having his power restored. “I only mention it because, rightly, they prioritize restorations that affect the largest number of people first. We called many times to communicate this fact, waiting over an hour on hold, only to be disconnected. We finally did get through on Sunday and Monday, only to be told that while they had a record of our outage report, they had no estimation of when we might be restored. When we related the issue of our outage being dropped from the website, we were told [it] had not been working since the storm.” 

As of Tuesday morning, about 32,000 Long Islanders were still without power, with PSEG reporting that about 6,600 of those customers lost service during the storm a week earlier. Just 72 outages remained in Riverhead Town and 34 more in Southold.

PSEG is not alone in its predicament. Other power companies across the Northeast have come under fire for their response to the storm, and complaints have also been lodged about other private utilities, such as Optimum and Verizon, which provide phone, internet and TV services to Suffolk County.

Part-time Southold resident Laurence Maslon said he had to break quarantine to head into New York City to get work done after his Optimum wi-fi service was down for several days this week, despite having power. He said communication with that company was also difficult.

“No one responds to any of my calls and emails or my neighbors’ calls with any clarity,” he said.

Mr. Josephson and others interviewed this week said that despite communication difficulties with PSEG, they had high praise for the crews on the ground working to bring power back to the more than 420,000 customers who lost power during the storm and tens of thousands more in the days since. In total, PSEG said that by bringing in out-of-state line workers it had more than 6,000 people working 16-hour shifts, 24 hours per day, to bring power back to the entire island.

“The workers have been wonderful,” Ms. Wipf said. “They are lovely, hard-working people who have been stretched so thin. I think the utility will owe people refunds for this, but I don’t want to do anything that would hurt the workers, who have been terrific. But this is outrageous.”

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