NEW YORK -- As the hard-hit Northeast struggles to clean up the damage from superstorm Sandy, utilities companies and meteorologists say a threatening nor'easter could complicate power restoration plans and cause further outages.
A storm with winds between 25 and 70 miles per hour could hit the tri-state area Wednesday with rain, light snow and a storm surge between two and five feet, NWS meteorologist David Stark told The Huffington Post. Though the storm's path has changed since it was headed squarely toward the coastline, some still fear further damage to the electrical grid, especially to the most recently patched-up areas, where connections are more tenuous.
"We may have a second round of outages, because a nor'easter can bring heavy rain, strong wind and an ice storm," said Lamine Mili, a Virginia Tech professor who has consulted for FEMA. "That can again affect both the overhead lines and the underground substations."
By Tuesday, utilities companies had reduced the number of customers without power to below 1 million for the first time since Hurricane Sandy tore through the East Coast. In New York state, utilities said they were preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Rain and heavy wind are likely to knock over Sandy-weakened trees and make it harder for repair crews to travel.
"It will undo some of the repairs we've made. I worry about that a lot," John Miksad, senior vice president of electric operations at ConEd, told DNAinfo. The company has put the lights back on in lower Manahattan; but on the city's fringes in the outer boroughs, thousands are still without power and outages are currently estimated to last through Sunday.
Upstate, the New York State Electric & Gas Company still has more than 10,000 customers without power.
"Although this storm now appears to be tracking further off the coast than was originally forecast, we are ensuring that the resources and materials are in place to deal with any additional damage to our electricity delivery system," said Clayton Ellis, a spokesman for NYSEG.
The Long Island Power Authority, in charge of some of the areas hardest hit by Sandy, said it was on track to restore power to 90 percent of customers by Wednesday night. "We are planning for additional outages associated with this storm, and have the resources here on-island to address those outages," said Mark Gross, a company spokesman.
On Tuesday, 14 percent of New Jersey residents still had no power. Mike Jennings, a spokesman for PSE&G, a major New Jersey electrical provider, said linesmen will continue restoring power to customers as long as it's safe -- that is, until winds reach 40 miles per hour.
He added that he's worried about the storm undoing some of their work: "We've done what we had to do to get power restored, but it wasn't a permanent fix," Jennings said. "Some of these fixes might be more vulnerable." The company was hoping to come back and do long-term restoration work once everyone had power, but the nor'easter could rip the bandages off some of the temporary work.
Jersey Central Power and Light is continuing restoration work, with 500 to 600 new workers coming from out of state Tuesday, said spokesman Ron Morano. "We will be prepared to respond from any associated outages from the nor'easter," he said. Some areas that the company preemptively shut down ahead of Sandy are still without power.
Atlantic City Electric, which serves some of the more devastated areas of New Jersey, said power had been restored to all homes that were not too damaged to receive it. "We're prepared, just like we would be for any other storm," spokesman Lendel Jones said. "We have regular drills that we do, we open our incident command center, and we would just run through all of our procedures just like we normally do."
Connecticut Light & Power prepared similarly. "Out-of-state resources remain on the job throughout our service area, removing risks from damaged trees and reinforcing completed repair work," said Mitch Gross, a spokesman, asserting that such resources ensure the company "remains well prepared for the impending severe weather."
The nor'easter comes hard on the heels of criticism by industry insiders about the East Coast's collective failure to shore up its grid in advance of Sandy's landfall, and thereby prevent lengthy outages.
"It strikes me as absolutely foolish that in order to energize our 21st-century economy, we depend on an archaic poles-and-wires transmission system that remains mired in 1930s technology," David Crane, CEO of a large power plant, said in a November 2 NRG Energy earnings call. "I mean, seriously, could you imagine that more than a decade into the 21st century, we base our entire electricity delivery system on wooden poles?"