Hurricane Sandy - Mother Nature Meets Bureaucracy
Governor Cuomo Reads the Riot Act
How to Ignore Advance Hurricane Warning
This article is about one power authority and one storm. It is a cautionary tale of bureaucratic ineptitude. The problems I discuss here can also apply to other utilities such as Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) and National Grid, the operating agency of the Long Island Power Authority.
Hurricane Sandy goes into the record books as one of the worst storms to hit the Northeast in the last 100 years. Although it was below hurricane strength when it made landfall in New Jersey, it was a slow moving monster, inflicting sustained winds of over 60 mph on the trees and power lines of the affected area. Combined with astronomical high tides, the flooding caused by the storm was a true catastrophe for anyone living near tidal waterways. The problem was compounded when a Nor'easter hit a few days later with low temperatures, snow, and additional flooding.
The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) is a government monopoly, serving over 2.9 million in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. Two weeks after the storm, hundreds of thousands of living on Long Island were still without power. LIPA will become a metaphor for the inefficiencies of government monopolies.
We all expect that there will be power outages in a storm. With most of the power grid above surface in transmission lines, it's inevitable that some lines will come down with fallen trees and flying debris. But what is not inevitable, or should not be, is a sustained loss of power to so many families and businesses over so long a time. This is not a tale of people snuggled with candle light. It is a story of true human suffering, with no heat, often no cooking facilities, and in some cases no running water. Many, including elderly people who live in high rise apartments in the hard hit community Long Beach are without elevator service and no flushing toilets. The magnitude of the suffering caused by the terrible bureaucratic response by a hidebound government agency cannot be overstated.
A Tale of Unpreparedness
For years, cocktail party banter on Long Island often included talk about when The Big One would hit. It did, on October 29, 2012, and her name was Sandy. Long Island is no stranger to powerful storms. The Hurricane of 1938, also known as the Long Island Express or the New England Hurricane, depending on where one lived, was a devastating Category 3 hurricane. According to the book The Sudden Sea - The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R. A. Scotti, It claimed about 800 lives and destroyed or damaged over 57,000 homes. The reason for the large amount of deaths was because weather forecasting was not then what it is now. Without satellite tracking, many people were subjected to a sudden cataclysm. Sandy, on the other hand, did not approach as an unannounced guest. We knew it was coming about a week before it hit. The Long Island Power Authority knew this as well. What went wrong, besides the storm? Long Island Newsday recounted LIPA's inefficiencies in its November 8, 2012 Edition, and much of this article is based on the report.
Nothing Like Modern Technology
An Antiquated Computer Management System
In 2006, six years before Sandy, a consulting firm did a study and recommended that LIPA replace its antiquated mainframe computer management system. It was 25 years old, and ran on the now quaint COBOL programming language. Remember the Y2K Scare, the worldwide panic about computers freaking out when the calendar turned 2000? One of the interesting stories about the scare was the sudden employment of retired computer programmers who knew how to use COBOL. They were needed to check old legacy computers that used the language. It was ancient history then. Twelve years later the Long Island Power Authority was still using it. It's amazing that they have programmers who know the language. The antiquated computer management system was cited as one of the major problems with LIPA's clumsy response to Hurricane Irene a year earlier. Parts of the system even lacked electronic mapping for outages. Engineers use paper maps and highlighters to track the outages. Some substations use dial-up internet service. Remember dial up? You've got mail! All this in the year 2012.
If you were affected by Hurricane Sandy, How do you judge your utility company?
Why Use Technology When You Have Good Old Paper Notebooks?
In a day when any well run beer or food distributor uses cell phones and tablet computers for employees in the field to report, LIPA employees use paper notepads in the field. This poses a problem, to put it mildly, for the field worker to report and for management to make decisions. Hey guys, there's an app for that.
Storm Hardening - We'll get to that Someday
The 2006 report also recommended that LIPA spend 20 million a year on "storm hardening," that is taking steps to ensure that key parts of the infrastructure be able to withstand severe storms. LIAP only spent an average of 12.5 million since the report.
Long Island, New York
Long Island runs about 120 miles from end to end and is about 18 miles wide. To the north is Long Island Sound, ant to the south the Atlantic Ocean.
Trim Trees and Replace Old Utility Poles
While the standard is to trim 10 feet around distribution equipment, LIPA settled for only six feet. The report, based on industry standards, also recommended a four year cycle for trimming trees. LIPA stretched it to eight. What about old rotting utility poles? What, me worry? LIPA defunded a program to inspect utility poles in 2006. It was supposed to restart in 2013, seven years later. Their spending on pole replacement went from 2.7 million in 2006 to $800,000 in 2011. Apparently they figured it was cheaper to let the old poles fall down than to replace them.
The response of the Long Island Power Authority to Magastorm Sandy was disgraceful. Imagine if LIPA were a private company run by somebody like Steve Jobs. I don't think field workers would be using paper note pads to report outages.
Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran