NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, frustrated with lengthy power outages since Superstorm Sandy, on Tuesday launched an investigation by a new commission into the state’s utilities, saying that failings exposed by the storm demand a major overhaul of the industry.
Public outcry over power companies’ response to the storm may provide momentum to make long-overdue changes, Cuomo said at a briefing to mark the partial reopening of a tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan that was flooded in the storm.
Fueled by widespread power outages, storm victims’ ire has been rising since it struck on October 29. While hundreds of thousands of people have had power restored, more than 130,000 customers remain without electricity and heat, and residents have complained of getting confusing or little information from the power companies.
Almost all of state-owned Long Island Power Authority’s (LIPA) 1.1 million customers lost power in Sandy, and the utility, among the slowest to recover, has come under fierce criticism.
“We can’t go through something like this again. We shouldn’t go through something like this again, and learning from it is very, very important,” Cuomo said.
“I believe something like this is going to happen again,” he said. “I think we need to be better prepared.”
Cuomo said he signed an executive order creating a commission to investigate the response, preparation and management of the power companies and to recommend ways to reform the industry’s oversight and management. Changes would have to be approved by the state legislature, he said.
“You’re talking about a whole bureaucracy that has to be changed,” he said. “I don’t believe you can fix it, I believe it has to be overhauled and you need a new system.”
The commission will investigate the New York Power Authority, LIPA, the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority and the Public Service Commission that regulates a number of utilities, including the publicly traded Con Edison Inc., which supplies power to New York City and its northern suburbs.
Also on Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against LIPA on behalf of Long Island residents, claiming it failed to replace an “outdated, obsolete” management system for dealing with large-scale power outages.
The lights flickered on at mid-afternoon on Tuesday at a public housing complex in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island, which has been without power since getting slammed by the storm.
“Let there be lights! Lord Jesus! Sixteen days without lights,” said resident Blanca Martin, 41, as she let out whoops of joy and did a little dance.
Another resident, Jawhar Edwards, 28, called the past two weeks “unbearable.”
“It feels like we have no help,” he said.
LIPA said more than 84,000 homes and businesses will stay dark due to saltwater flooding that could have damaged wires, outlets and appliances, making it unsafe to restore electricity.
Utilities say those homes and businesses must be inspected, repaired and certified before service can resume.
Con Ed said it had about 16,300 such customers, and in New Jersey, Jersey Central Power and Light utility has said about 30,000 customers could not yet have power restored.
The devastation in New York City was set for an inspection on Thursday by President Barack Obama.
The president toured storm-ravaged areas of New Jersey ahead of last week’s election with Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose strong praise for Obama’s storm response was seen as helping boost his showing at the polls.
In Manhattan, workers were readying an 80-foot-tall tree brought in from New Jersey that will be set up on Wednesday in Rockefeller Center. The tree’s 30,000 colorful Christmas lights may seem to shine brighter this year to the thousands in the region who will visit this popular attraction, and who were without power after the storm.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city’s gas-rationing system, under which cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates can fill up only on alternate days, would continue for at least another five days, at which time officials would assess the situation.
He said the program, put into place on Friday morning, has succeeded in shortening lines at gasoline stations. Since Sandy, the region has faced severe fuel shortages due to power outages and inventory stranded at refineries and terminals.
New Jersey’s similar gas-rationing system, launched on November 3, came to an end on Tuesday morning.
Commuters’ headaches were easing slightly, as PATH trains that connect New York and New Jersey resumed some limited service on Tuesday, and some trains on the Long Island Rail Road began to roll. But two of New Jersey Transit’s major train lines remained suspended.
Additional reporting by Jessica Dye, Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jackie Frank