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Inside Last Week’s Rivertowns Power Outage

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September 20, 2021

By Brianna Staudt —

The phone rang at 6:40 a.m. on Monday morning. Retiring Public Schools of the Tarrytowns Transportation Director Cy Hughes reported he was in the district transportation building, and the power was out. Tarrytowns Superintendent Christopher Borsari hung up and started dialing. ConEdison, the village, the police department — nobody knew about the outage yet.

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It turned out the transportation building outage was the least of the school district’s problems. ConEd’s official report lists 1,135 customers affected by the power outage across Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, Elmsford and Ardsley on Monday, Sept. 13, beginning 6:52 a.m.

Many rivertowns residents charge devices, turn down freezer temps, and dig out flashlights and candles when severe weather is forecast. In some neighborhoods, outages are almost predictable. The villages braced for storms Henri and then Ida just last month. No one expected to wake up on this clear September morning and not be able to run their coffee maker.

The first Tarrytowns (Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow) students board the school bus at 6:48 a.m., bound for Washington Irving Intermediate School, which educates students in grades 3–5. The early buses to the Sleepy Hollow High School/Middle School campus start boarding students just minutes later.

Borsari had to make a “snap decision.” He picked up the phone again and consulted neighboring superintendents, including Superintendent of Irvington Schools Kris Harrison. Their schools were opening. Lights flickered on and off in Dobbs Ferry and Irvington, but the power “seemed to be holding.”

The situation in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow was more acute. Facilities chief Anthony DeMan phoned Borsari shortly after Hughes. Only one school had consistent power — W. L. Morse Elementary School on Pocantico Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving School’s power was going in and out. John Paulding School, the high school and the middle school were dark, as was the administration building.

“In my experience, we’ve got about an hour, hour and a half before we’ve got to get everyone out” of schools with no power, explained Borsari. He noted most people think about the lights, but a power outage also affects the schools’ water pumps. “Bathrooms don’t work,” he explains.

The computer systems were down. Staff didn’t have access to student records, which included the phone numbers of parents or guardians of the students who had already been picked up by buses.

At 7 a.m., families and staff received a message relaying the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns were on a two-hour delay because of a power outage.

In some cases, bus drivers drove (the relatively few) students they had already picked up back to their doorsteps instead of bus stops. Children called parents from cell phones and to ask to be picked up. Some parents had already left for work. Families and students waiting at bus stops for transport that never arrived eventually got the message and went home.

Borsari said that in hindsight, it would have been better “if I took an extra minute to say in my message, ‘If your student has already left, return to the bus stop.’” He said the district is reviewing everything about the response, but another takeaway is looking into backup batteries for key technology.

Many Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow residents assumed the outage was related to the large, very visible ConEd gas main project that has snaked down Broadway from Sleepy Hollow to Tarrytown since July. Rumors of a water main break also whirled around the villages.

After investigating the outage, ConEd reported back to the Village of Tarrytown. It said the outage “was due to continuing damage and repairs caused by Tropical Storm Ida, which affected the electricity grid in our area and caused several electrical feeder lines to go out of service,” which affected many villages in the area, according to Village Administrator Rich Slingerland.

The morning progressed and the power remained off. Buses were scheduled to start their second attempt to pick up Washington Irving students at 8:48 a.m. It was time for another decision.

At 8:35 a.m., Borsari was dictating a message announcing that schools would be closed for the day. Then came a call from ConEd.

“They said the power would be on by 10 [a.m.], and we decided to roll the dice,” said Borsari. The district opened as scheduled, two hours late.

ConEd recorded the end of the outage as 8:35 a.m. Public Affairs Manager Allan Drury said the outage was due to “an equipment failure at a substation.”

As for any ties to Ida: “I have no information on that.”

Drury described many ways outages can occur, triggered by anything from squirrels to mylar balloons. And, “there will always be maintenance and upgrades being made to the system, whether there’s been an Ida or not.”

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