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Hurricane Sandy Utility Outages May Be Worsened By Underinvestment, Lack Of Planning

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HURRICANE SANDY ELECTRICAL GRID
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NEW YORK -- Two days after Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast, electrical utility companies warned hundreds of thousands of customers from Long Island to New Jersey that they may be left in the dark for more than 10 days.

Critics said cost-cutting was holding back recovery efforts, and long-term planning around climate change and extreme weather is lacking. The industry pointed to downed trees, knocked-out facilities and the devastating reach of the storm to explain the duration of outages.

"You cannot make infrastructure hurricane-proof. We had a nine-foot storm surge on top of high tide. You cannot protect your infrastructure against that sort of damage," said Chris Eck, spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light, which had 940,000 customers without power Wednesday.

But several utility and climate experts maintained that utilities, faulted in many places for their response to Hurricane Irene a year ago, should look further back in geological history, and further ahead toward the destabilizing effects of global warming, as they prepare for natural disaster.

In New York City, researchers warned in 2008 that the shoreline was highly vulnerable to a massive surge. Brian Colle, a professor of atmospheric science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said higher surges could have been foreseen by looking at geological history.

"If you're planning for New York City to be around for more than 100 years -- which I would hope so -- then I think it's prudent to have a flood mitigation plan or strategy that goes beyond 100 years," Colle said.

For some utility customers, the storm presented life-threatening situations. That was apparent in Manhattan, where NYU Langone hospital lost its backup generator and had to be evacuated in the midst of the storm. Some 643,000 people in New York City were still without power Wednesday afternoon.

One major culprit: a ConEd substation just off the East River on 14th Street that dramatically exploded on Monday night when it was flooded after a storm surge from the East River propelled by the hurricane. The substation's continued unavailability may demonstrate the short timeline on which many utilities look into the future. The design limit for ConEd's crucial substation, which served 250,000 customers, was a 12.5 foot surge of water -- above the highest in recorded history.

"Nobody predicted it would be that high," ConEd spokesman Allan Drury told the Associated Press.

But in Colle's view, if you're planning for 100 years out, the 12.5-foot threshold "is a little low."

Utilities were repeating the refrain up and down the East Coast: ConEd said it had experienced its "worst storm damage ever." In New Jersey, the president of utility company PSE&G said service outages of seven days or more were inevitable "given the destructive nature of this storm."

The Edison Electric Institute, the main industry association, said utilities were calling up an "army" of 53,000 workers.

The question of how long people remain without power may depend on manpower.

Seth Guikema, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University who correctly predicted the massive number of people left powerless by the storm, said that when it comes to outage duration, "a big driver is how many crews the utility has relative to the number of outages they have."

Energy consultant Steve Mitnick argued that more of those crews should have been on each company's payroll in the first place, instead of called in from other states. Even if utilities' cannot prevent an act of God, they can respond to it more quickly, he said.

"Obviously these storm events are big, okay? No question about it," Mitnick said. "But to say you don't have the means to start investing more -- that's absolutely not the case."

He had a "very practical" solution for getting power restored more quickly: "people. Boots on the ground."

"Those guys from Missouri, they don't know the neighborhoods of New Jersey," said Mitnick. In Japan and Europe, Mitnick argued, outages of more than a day are exceedingly rare, despite weather events as varied as typhoons and earthquakes, because they have large workforces available for stormy duty. Utilities companies, regulators and members of the public there have decided that they demand more service reliability.

That reliability capacity comes at the price of higher utility bills passed along to the customer, Mitnick admitted. But he argued the cost of more manpower, backup equipment, and redundant facilities would work out to perhaps a dime a day.

A notable example of not spending those dimes in Mitnick's mind: that utility substation in New York.

Finding higher ground for a massive substation in the middle of one of the nation's most expensive real estate markets would undoubtedly involve much money and political capital. Mitnick argued that at least in the short term, a simple solution would be building limited backup stations elsewhere.

In general, Mitnick said, "cost-cutting consultants" have brought "incredible economies" to the utilities industry -- changes that were accelerated by deregulation. But the scrimping has now produced an economist's worst nightmare, as week-long blackouts diminish productivity in the Internet era. Not to mention the logistical headaches and possible life-threatening situations for utility customers.

"There's a recognition that severe weather events are more frequent, they're more varied, they're more severe," regardless of whether think of those events in terms of climate change, said Thomas Getz, former New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission chairman. That should translate into more investment, he said.

"From the perspective of utilities and utility regulators, it seems to me you need to recognize that this is a reality," Getz said. "The practical response is to be better prepared and making the investments to be better prepared."

Overall, the industry argues it needs more funding -- and that the government should help, investing in "smart grid" technologies like electronic meters. Smart meters could allow companies to more quickly assess where power has gone out.

Underinvestment in the grid, according to a 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, could lead to more problems when disaster strikes.

"Public and government opposition, difficult permitting processes, and environmental requirements are often restricting the much-needed modernization," the report found. The ASCE predicted that $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion in electric utility investments will be needed by 2030.

Power outages as of 2 p.m. Wednesday.

'ENTIRELY OUT OF CONTROL'

Everywhere Sandy hit, utility companies and customers were grappling with hard questions about storm response. The storm has plunged more than 6 million Americans across a large swath of the mid-Atlantic into the dark for a third day.

Adding to the general frustration, some companies haven't even told customers when the power will turn back on.

"Until we complete our assessment of the whole system, it's difficult to say," Eck, of Jersey Central Power & Light, told HuffPost. By Wednesday evening, the company was telling Twitter followers they might have to wait an entire week.

In New York City, restoration would take from three to seven days,, depending on whether power lines were buried, ConEd said on Wednesday.

Gail Worley, one of 1.8 million New York state residents without power, lives a block from the ConEd substation that exploded from flooding.

Worley sat on her neighbor's stoop as the water poured down 14th Street at around the same time her power shut off Monday evening. She said she had heard it might take a full week for power to return.

"It was frightening because you don't know what you're seeing," Worley said. "It's entirely out of control."

Two of the biggest causes for outages were flooding and downed trees.

New Jersey's PSE&G intentionally cut off service to 500,000 customers due to flooding in a handful of substations. The move, which affected residents of Newark and Jersey City, was intended to protect PSE&G's electrical equipment.

During Hurricane Irene, rainfall triggered flooding. "So this year we sandbagged our stations and took precautions at the substations that flooded last time," said PSE&G spokeswoman Karen Johnson.

This time around, flooding was a result of storm surge, which can come with great force and immediacy. "There's not much you can do to protect against that," Johnson said, adding that substations that flooded last year fared well during Sandy.

In Connecticut, a spokesman for Connecticut Light and Power, Frank Poirot, reported that more than 90 percent of the outages were caused by trees. After an early snowstorm in October 2011 that affected almost 1 million residents, CLP doubled its tree-trimming budget to almost $54 million for this year. Still, roughly 660,000 customers lost power during Sandy and less than half have been restored.

In many cases neighbor opposition laws restrict utility tree-trimming. Utilities have long argued that reliable power service should take precedence.

“As much as we like the environmental and aesthetic benefits,” Poirot said. “We know that [trees] are in conflict with our need to deliver electricity and energize the economy.”

Other companies appear to have been more successful. Officials in cities served by National Grid in Massachusetts reported a marked improvement since Irene and noted that “pruning trees before the storm hit helped prevent limbs from falling on power lines and causing blackouts.”

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The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to sandytips@huffingtonpost.com with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.

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HuffPost's Katie Bindley reports:

Like all the competitors who trained for the 2012 NYC Marathon, Hannah Vahaba will not be running the race this year. But she also will never forget her moment at the finish line. After traveling in from Atlanta, Vahaba picked up a marriage proposal in Central Park on Saturday without having to traverse the 26.2-mile course.

"This is my fiance," said Vahaba, 31, who had tears running down her face as she stood in Central Park where the race would have ended, just moments after Martin O'Donoghue had proposed.

marriage proposal cancelled nyc marathon

Photo by Damon Scheleur

Read the full story here.

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Be sure to check donation lists to see what items are needed. For example, at one Staten Island donation center, there is a critical need for batteries batteries batteries, candles, matches, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pet food, baby supplies, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner. Clothing isn't needed as much at that center.

-Catharine Smith, HuffPost

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HuffPost's Tim Stenovec reports:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least 48 people in New York when it battered the Northeast last week, frustrated residents in this corner of South Brooklyn are coping without electricity, heat and running water.

Read the full story here.

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Huntington Patch reports:

At a massive food distribution event at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Cuomo said power has been restored to 60 percent of the New York metropolitan area.

LIPA reported Saturday evening that 460,000 customers remained without power, down from more than 900,000 initially.

"I've warned the utility companies repeatedly they operate under a state charter, essentially," Cuomo said. "The utility companies are not happy with my warning and frankly, I don't care."

"The customers are not happy. The bill payers are not happy and the people without power are not happy," Cuomo said. "People are suffering. It is an issue of safety and if the utilities were not prepared we will hold them accountable."

Read the full story on Huntington Patch.

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Even as power returns to parts of the region assailed by Hurricane Sandy, millions of drivers seeking gasoline appear likely to face at least several more days of persistent shortages.

Read the full story here.

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HuffPost's Bianca Bosker:

On Saturday, 27-year-old Kate Frasca was manning Con Edison’s Twitter account, @ConEdison, responding to customers’ frustrations, questions, praise and criticism at an average clip of one tweet every six minutes.

Read the full story here.

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@ USACE_HQ : Roughly 600 M gallons of storm water infiltrated the nation’s busiest and oldest underground mass transit system... http://t.co/5jMXDhRc

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@ MikeBloomberg : If you would like to donate: visit http://t.co/9w8egqxD So far million has been contributed. 100% of funds go to #Recovery efforts.

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@ usNWSgov : Post #Sandy reminders: never touch a downed power line or anything touching one. Washing your hands prevents illness. #NWS #CDC

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@ NYCMayorsOffice : Volunteers Descend on Staten Island Neighborhood http://t.co/9aP3ggJN

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@ usNWSgov : Temps near the freezing mark expected tonight in areas affected by #Sandy. Those without power should prepare for a cold night. #NWS #nywx

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HuffPost's Ben Hallman reports:

For hours, giant waves crashed against Rockaway Beach, making a tremendous roar that could be heard up and down the 11-mile peninsula. "We kept constant watch on the boardwalk," said Diane Hudson, who lives on a high floor in a building about a half block from the Atlantic Ocean. "There was no water on it, so we thought we were OK."

Then she got a call from her boss, and close friend, David Gotthelf, who had just moved into a ground-floor apartment about a mile and a half away, on Beach 115th Street.

"The water is coming in," Hudson said Gotthelf told her. "What do I do? What do I do?"

Hudson looked out the window. In a matter of just a few minutes, the dark ocean had filled the parking lot. The boardwalk was gone. "Just get up on a high place," she said she told her friend. "Get on your bed."

That was the last time anyone talked to Gotthelf, who died Monday night or Tuesday morning, as far as Hudson knows.

Read the full story here.

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From The New York Times:

The L line from Manhattan to Brooklyn, however, remained flooded Saturday, from what Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, described as “wall to wall” inundation. The G train tunnel was flooded as well and is not expected to be back in service until later this week.'

Read the full story here.

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New Jersey voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy will be able to vote either electronically or by fax under an order issued by state officials on Saturday. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), who is also New Jersey's secretary of state, said that voters can request a ballot be sent to them by their local county clerk via email or fax and then return it to the county the same way.

“This has been an extraordinary storm that has created unthinkable destruction across our state and we know many people have questions about how and where to cast their vote in Tuesday’s election," Guadagno said in a statement. "To help alleviate pressure on polling places, we encourage voters to either use electronic voting or the extended hours at county offices to cast their vote."

Guadagno also said that first responders in the state who are stationed away from their home can use the same method to vote.

Guadagno's decision follows previous orders to extend early voting hours at county elections offices statewide over the weekend. Gov. Chris Christie (R) indicated that the state was printing additional provisional ballots to allow those displaced by Hurricane Sandy to vote in another location due to the storm.

-- John Celock, HuffPost

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Francis Ng was ready to run a marathon in New York City on Sunday but now the Toronto marathoner is instead looking to pitch in as the region recovers from this week's massive storm.

He's just one of the many Canadian runners who found out too late that the New York City Marathon was canceled, a race that draws more than 47,000 entrants.

Other athletes from Canada and many from around the world were already on the way to the Big Apple when the mayor's office cancelled one of the world's largest marathons. The 2011 edition of the marathon drew 1,200 Canadians and more than half of the race's participants are from outside of the United States.

Ng found out at at the airport departure lounge in Toronto that the race was canceled, so instead of running through the five boroughs on Sunday morning, he's now looking to make a trip up to the Bronx to volunteer at Pelham Bay Nature Center.

Read the full story here

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HuffPost’s Betsy Isaacson Reports:

Even with bicycle generators to charge phones, people in downtown Manhattan did not have working internet through Friday, Nov. 2, when power finally started to return to the grids there. The massive New York City power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy left thousands of New Yorkers without connection to the outside world, unable to check on relatives or secure information unless they walked or took a cab uptown, where the city had power.

With power now back on in Lower Manhattan, age-old ways of trading information will likely give way to texting and wireless connections. A copy of The New York Times will no longer be worth more than . Will New Yorkers miss it?

Read the full story here.

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HuffPost's Gerry Smith reports:

Heavy flooding this week at Verizon’s headquarters in lower Manhattan -- a critical node of its network infrastructure -- has begun to subside, but the company's effort to repair damaged network equipment and restore service to customers after Hurricane Sandy continues.

Read the full story here.

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HuffPost's Lynne Peeples reports:

Among the wreckage removed in Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornado was 2,600 tons of asbestos debris.

"That was a small community," said Linda Reinstein, president of the nonprofit Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. "Do the math, and we can recognize that we have a significant public health risk with Hurricane Sandy."

With wind and water damage caused by Sandy compromising the integrity of homes, schools and other buildings along much of the East Coast, health experts warn of increased risks of exposure to a variety of environmental toxins. One of the most worrisome, they say, is asbestos. Much of the compromised construction materials, including roofing, piping and insulation, could contain the microscopic mineral fibers. And while a person generally can't see it, smell it or taste it, they can breathe it and ingest it -- and the consequences can be severe.

Read the full story here.

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@ AP : BREAKING: New York City mayor says gas station shortages could take a few days to fully be resolved -RJJ

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New York Magazine has released a sneak peek of its latest cover, and wow is it stunning.

The editors explain the photo choice here:

A photograph taken by Iwan Baan on Wednesday night, showing the Island of Manhattan, half aglow and half in dark, was the clear choice, for the way it fit with the bigger story we have tried to tell here about a powerful city rendered powerless. We crammed back into the conference room, raced to finish our pages, and hoped, like other New Yorkers, that everyone would find the lights on when they got home.

See the pic here.

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Photos have begun to emerge comparing regions of the East Coast before and after the storm. Click here to view an interactive set of photos documenting the disturbing contrast.

before after photos

-Jake Bialer, HuffPost

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If you're out volunteering, share your stories with us. Use Twitter or Instagram and tag your photos #volunteersandy. Or you can submit your photos here.

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From The Associated Press:

The government says the public should stay away from free New York fuel stations until emergency responders get their gas.

Long lines of vehicles and pedestrians formed Saturday after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the U.S. Department of Defense was opening the mobile fuel stations in New York City and on suburban Long Island.

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Under orders from President Obama through FEMA, the Defense Logistics Agency and National Guard, there are new shipments of fuel available at five locations in New York area and at four locations in New Jersey.

In New York, fuel is available at the Queens Armory, 93-05 160th St., Jamaica, NY 11433; Bronx Armory, 10 West 195th St.,Bronx, NY 10468, Brooklyn Armory, 1579 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11225, the Staten Island/Elizabeth Armory, 321 Manor Rd., Staten Island, NY 10314, and the Freeport Armory, 63 Babylon Turnpike, Freeport NY 11520

In New Jersey, fuel is available at the Teaneck Armory,1799 Teaneck Road, Teaneck NJ 07666, the West Orange armory at1315 Pleasant Valley Way, West Orange NJ 07052, the Freehold armory at 635 Park Ave., Freehold NJ 07728, and at the former Plainfield armory at Plainfield,NJ.

The New Jersey National Guard continues to deliver fuel to first responders, using nine tanker trucks provided by the Pennsylvania National Guard.

-- HuffPost's David Wood

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The owners of New Jersey's NJ Skateshop are desperately trying to collect winter clothes for neighbors without heat and members of their community who were left homeless by Hurricane Sandy, as a Nor'easter is forecast to hit the stricken area next week.

Co-owner Chris Nieratko reports two of the shop's four stores have electricity and have been stocked with power strips to allow residents to charge their phones and "pretend things were normal if only for a while." But many are ill-equipped to handle the incoming storm, he writes, and are already struggling: "Seeing your children cold and hungry is a feeling I never want any of you to experience."

Nieratko is asking for shipments of any winter clothing to the store's New Brunswick location, from which they will distribute to people in need:

I have no TV so I don't know what you're hearing on the news, but let me tell you, it's bad. Very bad..we've opened to the door to anyone with children. For days we ran generators sparingly because there was no gas...

There's another storm coming. Temperatures are dropping. Things are getting colder and even scarier. I am writing to you to ask for your help in clothing the displaced, homeless, under-dressed skaters in our community and their families...If you have anything warm (socks, sweatshirts, jackets, beanies, gloves, shoes, tees, ANYTHING) doesn't matter if it's 5 seasons ago...there are many in need from very young to very big XXL. Anything you can spare to help people stay warm will be appreciated.

Please send whatever you're able to (and there's no box too small) to our New Brunswick shop:

NJ TWO 29-B Easton Ave

New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Label the box HURRICANE RELIEF

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Photo of National Guard in South Beach, Staten Island, today.

hurricane

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Deer Park-North Babylon Park Patch reports:
Harold Jamison will make it to the Tanger Outlet center this afternoon to see Ben Affleck's "Argo."

"That movie is so good, I have to see it. I'm not missing it. It's about the 1979 Iran conflict and there is old TV video clips and everything," Jamison said.

But first, he was living his own 1970s-style flashback, a nearly three-hour wait to get gas in Deer Park in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Jamison was in line to get gas at the Deer Park Express station on the corner of Deer Park and Long Island avenues. He was still idling around the corner on Lake Avenue and E. 4th Street. In 90 minutes, he had moved two blocks.

Read the full story, and check out Mark's excellent "Sweet Daddy" jacket on Deer Park-North Babylon Park Patch.

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HuffPost's Sam Stein reports:

WASHINGTON -- Before hitting the campaign trail for his final swing before the election, President Barack Obama on Saturday stopped by the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington for a briefing on Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

"We still have a long way to go to make sure that the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and some of the surrounding areas get their basic needs taken care of and we get back to normalcy," Obama said, adding that the situation continues to be his "number one priority."

The president emphasized five components of recovery: getting power back on as quickly as possible, pumping water out of flooded areas, making sure people's basic needs are taken care of, debris removal and getting transportation systems up and running again.

"Our hearts continue to go out to those families who have been affected, who have actually lost loved ones," Obama said. "That's obviously heartbreaking. But I'm confident that we will continue to make progress as long as state and local and federal officials stay focused."/blockquote>

Read more here.

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OurAmazingPlanet reports:

With coastal communities in New York and New Jersey still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the last thing the area needs is another storm. But that's exactly what it might get.

A nor'easter is predicted to potentially hit the East Coast next Wednesday (Nov. 7), and beach erosion experts are concerned about further damage to shorelines devastated by Sandy.

Read the full story here.

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