March Madness: A Parade of Storms Wreaks Havoc on Region
by Barrett Seaman –
March came into the Hudson Valley like a lion—a lion on steroids. Less than a week after a powerful “bomb cyclone” swept up the eastern seaboard on March 2nd, a second storm, laden with wet, heavy snow, moved over a landscape still littered with fallen trees and power lines, bringing down even more. Tens of thousands were left in the dark and cold—some of them still from the first storm, others knocked out twice. By month’s end, four consecutive nor’easters had swept through the region, leaving residents and government officials alike lashing out at their utilities, Con Ed and NYSEG (New York State Electric & Gas Corp.), for inadequate planning, poor communications and a hapless restoration effort.
The first two storms, dubbed Quinn and Riley, hit within five days of one another, bringing devastation up the coast and into New England. Throughout Westchester County, dozens of roads were blocked off. The state banned large trucks from the Thruway, including the Mario Cuomo Bridge, where two semis had been blown onto their sides by winds in the first storm. The County opened warming shelters. The governor sent in six teams of National Guardsmen to conduct “wellness checks” in the valley and to lend support to Con Ed and NYSEG in their failed efforts to keep up with the calls for help.
It was, to say the least, not a good week for the utilities. Their customer response mechanism, largely reliant on automated phone menus and cautionary robo-calls, left many feeling abandoned. “Mutual aid” rescue crews from as far away as Canada and North Carolina were working on downed lines in Irvington and Greenburgh, but they arrived late and offered only marginal assistance to what local officials called woefully inadequate preparation by Con Ed and NYSEG.
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner called for Con Ed to “reimburse residents who were out of power for the days that they had no power,” arguing that such a policy would provide “greater incentive to expedite restoration of power.” At a March 9 press conference, County Executive George Latimer called on the two utilities to fire their respective presidents. “Both Con Edison and NYSEG have fumbled the recovering effort,” said Latimer, “and we as County residents can no longer stand by and accept this.”
Later in the month, the County Board of Legislators passed a resolution calling upon the state to investigate the utilities’ ineptitude. They also called utility executives onto the carpet, demanding explanations. In many ways, it was a reprise of the Moreland Commission hearings in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy five years earlier, leading board chair Ben Boykin to ask, “Why are we going through this again?”
The worst of the damage was north and east of the Rivertowns. In Irvington, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, a dense, slush-like precipitation fell heavily upon rooftops and old trees that groaned ominously under its weight, but except for Irvington, the power losses were not overwhelming. Perhaps two-dozen residents of Sleepy Hollow lost power in the second storm. Except for homes along the southern border that were affected by the Irvington power loss, Tarrytown did not have a single outage from the second storm.
Sleepy Hollow Village Administrator Anthony Giaccio acknowledged that his village got off relatively easy, compared to Cortlandt, to the north, where nearly 1,800 lost power, or the communities along Long Island Sound. “We were fortunate in regard to outages,” he allowed, while adding that some of those were long outages—like Herb and Carina Hennas of Munroe Avenue in the Philipse Manor neighborhood.
During the first storm, a huge White Pine tree fell across a thicket of smaller pines onto their roof, snapping a bundle of electric cables on its way down. With Sleepy Hollow DPW workers precluded from clearing downed trees where live wires are present, they had to wait first for Con Ed to come out and extract the tree. But when Con Ed’s high voltage crew finally arrived in the middle of the second storm, their efforts caused a short that knocked out power to as many as 20 other houses in the area. It wasn’t until min-afternoon Friday that Con Ed was able to restore power. “We were very disappointed with Con Ed, just in terms of getting the services out here,” said Giaccio.
Of the local villages, Irvington took the worst hit from the second storm. On Wednesday night, two transformers in the area of Sunnyside Lane and Broadway at the village’s northern edge shorted out and exploded in flames. The fire gave off an eerie orange glow in the night sky visible for half a mile and took out power from a large swath of homes, as well as the Middle and High School campus. Mayor Brian C. Smith assured residents on the local Facebook page that since the affected area included the schools, Con Ed would give it priority.
Smith’s optimism was short-lived. Though most of the original 614 homes affected were back up by Thursday night, help all but vanished on Friday. “Village officials have spent the day fighting for a restoration crew to be deployed by Con Edison to Irvington,” he posted. “It has not happened. There are no crews currently working in the Village to restore power to 50+ residents, some of whom have been without power for over a week.”
While the lights came back on in most places, tempers continued to flare. The ire was singularly directed at the utilities. The March 19 Westchester County Board of Legislators’ hearing drew a phalanx of utility company managers to endure a barrage of complaints from one district after another. “The storms may have been natural disasters,” said Ben Boykin, who represents White Plains, Scarsdale and Harrison, “but the communications failures were disasters entirely of the companies’ own making.”
The utility representatives’ excuse was that they didn’t think it would be this bad. Said Kyle Kimball, Con Ed’s vice president for government relations: “You have to prepare for the storm you are expecting.” As it turned out, Quinn and Riley required more emergency crews than any area storm since Sandy in 2012.
Kimball and the other executives came under particularly withering fire from MaryJane Shimsky, whose district includes Irvington and Dobbs Ferry. Boring in on the utility companies’ policy of relying on “mutual aid” from elsewhere to provide resources when a storm hits, Shimsky charged that “there is too much reliance on mutual aid …You don’t have enough employees to do your job.”
Noting that Con Ed has a state-awarded monopoly, Shimsky charged that the company devotes too much attention to shareholder value at the expense of customer service. She observed that last year, Con Ed budgeted $1 million for storm hardening measures but spent only $372,000—a “drop in the bucket” in the context of their $1.525 million net earnings.
Nerve endings were exposed as March’s fourth nor’easter rolled towards the Hudson Valley on the first full day of spring. High-profile trucks were banned from highways and bridges. The governor declared yet another state of emergency and Con Ed re-launched its robo-calls. In the end, however, #4 turned out to be little more than a late season snowfall. By noon the next day, a bright post-equinox sun had cleared the roadways. Perhaps the proverbial lamb had finally arrived.