The power is … on?

LAKE PLACID – The state wants utility companies to improve the way they respond to major storms and natural disasters.

That was the message from members of the Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response, which held its eighth public hearing at the Conference Center at Lake Placid Wednesday night. Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened the commission last November, after Hurricane Sandy exposed weaknesses in power companies’ ability to deal with a disaster of that magnitude.

State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky, one of the commission’s co-chairs, said that although the group’s early focus was the response to Sandy, it’s also visiting regions hit hard by tropical storms Irene and Lee to gather information about storm response in those areas.

“We are really trying to look at, after all those storms, what went wrong, why did it go wrong, and how do we fix it, as it relates to utilities,” Lawsky said. “And most of all, even if ultimately in this region or in other regions not affected by Superstorm Sandy, should we find that utilities performed well, we and this governor very much want to study how we can continue, as a state, to get better and better at preparing for and then responding to the storms.”

Cuomo, in his recent State of the State address, said he thinks climate change is real and that it’s the root cause of major weather events like Irene and Sandy. Lawsky echoed that message at Wednesday’s hearing.

“They’re going to continue, and they’re going to get worse,” he said. “And it’s only a matter of time before we have another storm that doesn’t hit downstate but does hit upstate. And we’ll be back up here once again, responding and trying to respond better than we ever have before to that storm.”

Commission member Tony Collins, president of Clarkson University and co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, said feedback so far is that the boots-on-the-ground employees of utility companies have performed well in the wake of major storms. It’s the higher-level coordination of storm preparation and response that’s been the problem, Collins said.

That disconnect between utility company officials, emergency responders and local officials was detailed by Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston during public comment. At the end of January, a severe wind storm tore through Wilmington, leaving nearly all of the town’s residents without power and causing serious damage. On the day of the storm, Jan. 31, Preston told the Enterprise that it was almost impossible for him to get accurate updates from the town’s utility company, New York State Electric and Gas.

Preston, who chairs Essex County’s Public Safety Committee, told the Moreland Commission that his efforts to find out when power would be restored were futile. When Preston finally got through to someone at NYSEG, all he received was a canned response. With night coming and temperatures forecasted to be in the low teens, Preston declared a state of emergency and began setting up shelters for residents who needed a warm place to sleep.

“The frustration of not being able to get clear and concise answers any different than anyone that’s on the street – in theory, being the town supervisor declaring a state of emergency, I’m the person in charge, and I couldn’t get nothing but a canned response,” he said. “And this is probably going to sound a little bit strange, but within 30 minutes of all of this going into effect, I started getting phone calls from people that the power was coming back on. So needless to say, it was a very frustrating event for me.”

Preston said the only way he was able to find out who had power and who didn’t was by going door-to-door with fire department volunteers. He said he was told by NYSEG to refer to the company’s website, but that didn’t provide accurate figures.

Preston added that when Irene hit in August 2011, power company officials lacked a knowledge of Essex County’s landscape.

“So I guess what I would say to this commission is, there needs to be a process,” he said. “As everybody is well aware, we are having natural disasters more and more frequently. There has to be a process to get these utility companies to come in, to deal with us, to communicate with us.”

Preston recommended that county emergency officials and utility company representatives meet on a month-to-month basis to coordinate storm preparation and response.

Regina Calcaterra, the commission’s director, said utility companies need to do a better job of communicating one-on-one with emergency coordinators. She said the commission has found that a public relations specialist for a utility company will often conduct conference calls with multiple emergency responders, most of whom have specific information about their area they need to communicate.

“The second thing is the website challenge,” Calcaterra said. “People will go on websites, and what they’ll find on there is global (estimated restoration times). They’ll find out one, general restoration time for an entire community, when the reality is that you don’t know if it was a substation or a line or a pole that is down. So there may be a different ETR for one side of the street.”

Commission members and emergency officials in attendance agreed that rural areas like the North Country have a much different expectation of utility companies when a storm strikes. Keith Zimmerman, director of St. Lawrence County’s planning office, said many residents in this region are capable of finding wood to heat their homes and are willing to wait several days for power to be restored. The big concern, he said, is making sure people have potable water and that power is restored quickly to facilities like hospitals.

The commission’s next public hearing is Wednesday at Binghamton University.