NEW YORK -- Political leaders and utility companies in New York City prepared for a nasty winter snowstorm Friday afternoon that could knock out power to tens of thousands. Even as the first residents started to lose electricity because of the storm, however, officials projected confidence in their restoration of the electrical grid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
"We do expect the system, from a snowstorm standpoint, to really behave much like it would have before Sandy," said John Bruckner, president of Long Island distribution and transmission for National Grid. "The damage has been repaired."
The grid may be ready, but some families are still awaiting repairs that Sandy left behind. Around 10,000 homes were substantially damaged during the October hurricane and its aftermath. Between 2,000 and 3,000 families in New York City still live in hotels as a result of the storm. Coastal flooding and storm surges from Sandy also mean that 846 customers in coastal communities in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens still can't receive electrical service because of water damage, according to utility company ConEd. Eighteen customers -- including large buildings -- still needed equipment repairs in Manhattan.
The new storm, meanwhile, will generate new disruptions. On Staten Island, winds knocked out overhead power lines for hundreds even before snow began on Friday afternoon. On Long Island, rain, snow and wind gusts of more than 60 miles per hour will kill the power for more than 100,000 people, according to National Grid.
The Long Island Power Authority, which provides electricity for most of the island, was heavily criticized for its sluggish response to Sandy. Responding to the recommendations of a special commission set up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, LIPA decided to give the contractor that oversees its distribution and transmission lines, National Grid, a lead role during the storm.
Peter Bradford, a member of the commission that investigated LIPA and National Grid's response to Sandy, said the transfer of power during the storm could be a benefit since Sandy showed there was "clearly a need for more direct lines of authority than were in place."
"But whether that means National Grid will be any more prepared than (LIPA) ... there's just no way to know until it's tested," he said.
The transfer of power before this storm may not solve all of Long Island's problems. As Bradford pointed out, even though National Grid had no power authority to compete within Massachusetts, authorities there fined the company $18.73 million for mistakes during Hurricane Irene. Preparedness, Bradford said, "begins years in advance, not with a single change in responsibility a few days before a particular event."
Howard Kopel, a Republican member of the Nassau County Legislature, said while it was "hard to quarrel" with LIPA's decision to give National Grid a larger role, he was still taking extra precautions. "I'm so confident that I went out and bought a generator for my home, a permanently installed gas generator," he said.
Kopel also questioned whether National Grid, which loses its contract with LIPA at the end of 2013 in favor of another company, will have enough incentive to respond quickly to the latest storm.
"National Grid is on the way out, so I'm a little bit concerned as to how enthusiastic they're going to be," he said. "But it's a big company, so I'm hoping that they'll do the best they can do for their reputation."
Bruckner countered that the company's significant gas business on the island motivates it to work hard. "Our reputation is extremely important to us, and we have put all efforts to this restoration effort as a top effort for National Grid," he said. The company has more than 5,000 people working on the storm and predicts that power outages will be restored within 24 hours of when they are reported.
Weather forecasters predicted moderate coastal storm surges, but no massive inundations like those associated with Sandy. Fortunately for people living in places where power is drawn from underground distribution lines -- like most of New York City -- that means electrical outages could be limited.
"The tide should be a foot or two above, but nothing like what happened with Sandy when you were talking about 10 and 12 feet above high water mark," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference. He urged the homeless, or those still without heat as a result of Sandy to call 311 for help.
"This is no night to be out in the elements," he said. "It's certainly not going to be a Hurricane Sandy, but that doesn't mean you can't get badly hurt or killed if you're not careful."