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Hurricane Sandy Deals Infrastructure A Blow, Highlights Need For Investment

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HURRICANE SANDY INFRASTRUCTURE
Submerged ConEd trucks in New York City. | AP

NEW YORK -- A day after Hurricane Sandy swept across the nation's most densely populated communities along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, utilities, telephone and Internet companies all scrambled Tuesday afternoon to restore services to millions of households left in the dark and beyond the reach of modern communications.

An unknown number of people had lost phone service, telecommunications centers were flooded, the stress placed on the nation's electrical grid cut off power for at least 8 million customers -- and all of the damage from the super-storm collectively highlighted the growing need for infrastructure investment.

ConEd, electricity provider for much of New York City, had 780,000 customers without service. ConEd said Tuesday that power would not be restored to parts of lower Manhattan for days and described Sandy as "the most devastating storm in company history."

AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all experienced service problems up and down the Eastern Seaboard. All three cell service and Internet providers declined Tuesday to give the number of customers affected, citing continued flooding and poor weather conditions as preventing them from sending in employees to assess damage.

The human impact of infrastructure disruptions, meanwhile, was incalculable. A major hospital in New York City was forced to evacuate newborns in an intensive care unit after a backup generator failed, and 911 services in the city were overrun with calls on Monday night.

Those outside the hospital also had cause for concern. Mohammed Dawad, who lives in an apartment on 14th Street in Manhattan, is taking care of a new baby born 14 days ago. When the power shut down at 6:24 p.m. EDT, he said the fragility of the newborn's life nearly paralyzed him.

"My brain shut down," Dawad said. "I was thinking about my family, what would happen if there was an emergency and we couldn't make a phone call."

Then the ConEd substation across the street from him went up in a dramatic explosion on Monday night, adding to his worries, but unlike some of his neighbors, Dawad finds little fault with the energy provider.

"This water, it's more than anyone can handle," he said.

The water -- along with the sheer number of customers affected -- will present providers with enormous challenges in bringing service back online.

"Right now we can't get to areas," Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said. "It's going to be a few days before we can get to areas to see the full impact on Verizon facilities."

"This is going to be a slow, painstaking process, folks," said Ralph Izzo, president of utility operator PSE&G in New Jersey, which had 462,000 customers without power.

"The magnitude of the flooding in contiguous areas is unprecedented," the utility said.

On Long Island, where a stunning 83 percent of the Long Island Power Authority's customers were without power on Tuesday, the utility predicted it would take 10 days -- and "very possibly more" -- for full service to be restored to all of the 945,000 affected.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that restoring power was one of the biggest challenges the city faced. As ConEd and other providers struggled to restore service, Bloomberg said, "our administration will move heaven and earth to help them."

But even with the best of coordination between utilities, police and road repair crews, "within the first 24 hours it's still mostly an assessment process," said Thomas Getz, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. "You've got scouts, people driving around looking to see where the issues are."

Hospitals, fire stations and police departments will be given first priority, along with substations and other critical sites, Getz said. Only then can crews go door to door to help residential customers.

As of Tuesday afternoon, massive power outages were also being reported by utilities as far away as Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.

It may be too soon to tell whether utilities made adequate preparations like calling up linemen from unaffected states under mutual aid arrangements before the storm. But Steve Piper, associate director for energy with SNL Financial, a market research firm, said that given the absence of both shortfalls in power generation and also cascading blackouts during Sandy, the system, on balance, appeared to work -- though improvements are needed.

"For a storm of this magnitude, it's pretty difficult to bullet-proof an electrical system no matter which way you go," Piper said -- referring to the two main options for placing distribution lines: above ground on poles, or buried underground. ConEd's system in Manhattan, for example, is largely below ground -- and vulnerable to extreme flooding. Across the Hudson River, the system is mostly above ground, and subject to high winds and falling trees.

"A storm of this size is going to leave its mark, just about no matter what you do," Piper said, adding, "That said, I think everyone recognizes that the system is very old and improvements are needed."

Electric power generation, transmission and distribution is already a $737 billion industry, and demand for electricity is projected to increase by as much as 31 percent by 2035, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's main trade group. Annual expenditures on improvements to the transmission and distribution infrastructure have risen somewhat over the last 30 years, according to data compiled by EEI, but have mostly remained flat over the last decade.

In its 2009 assessment of the nation's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the aging generation, transmission and distribution system of the U.S. low marks, adding that the projected investment needs of the electric utility infrastructure could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.

Like electricity infrastructure, telecom systems will remain vulnerable any time there is widespread flooding.

"This will happen again," disaster management consultant Philip Jan Rothstein said. "When you walk around NYC and you see all the gratings in the sidewalk, that’s where the transformers are, the fiber, the systems, there’s a lot of connectivity and it’s all underground. That stuff has to sit somewhere, some of it sits in buildings, some of it sits in basements, some of it sits underground. Basements flood."

Betsy Isaacson and Dino Grandoni contributed reporting.

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