For most, the persistent power outages through the March nor’easters meant spoiled food, days off school and no internet or TV. But for those with relatives in nursing homes in North Salem or without water or heat at Heritage Hills in Somers, the consequences were much more dire.
Lydia Howie of Somers was one of more than a dozen people at a public forum on Thursday, April 19, at Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers who showed up to speak directly to representatives of NYSEG and Con Edison and tell her story of attending to her sick mother in a nursing home while the wait for electricity dragged on for days.
The forum was hosted by Sen. Terrence Murphy and Assemblyman Kevin Byrne. They were joined by officials from several towns, including North Salem Supervisor Warren Lucas, Somers Supervisor Rick Morrissey and Carmel Supervisor Ken Schmitt.
Many residents also lambasted the utility for the frequency of blackouts plaguing the area long before the snow fell.
“Our home has been out of power at least 12 times in the past year,” Howie said. “However, I’m here tonight on behalf of my parents, residents of Waterview Hills in North Salem.”
The nursing home, Howie said, was without power for four days, during which time her elderly mother became very sick with pneumonia. For those four days, Howie stayed by her mother’s side and saw firsthand what it’s like to run a nursing home on a generator.
“Staff told me it was time to call hospice and a priest,” Howie said. “Lights were only on in the hallways. Residents’ rooms only had natural outside light, which posed safety issues because, of course, by 6 p.m. it was dark already. Residents’ movement was limited and they had no stimulation, no television, recreation, because they more or less stayed in their rooms.
“They ate by battery light and most of their meals were cold,” Howie continued. “Residents, like my father, who has Alzheimer’s, were confused. The staff were so burdened they couldn’t even give her (my mother) little sips of water on her deathbed.”
NYSEG representative Cindy Chadwick said the company is taking a closer look at nursing homes and senior developments to make sure those places are properly marked in the system as a priority, but said the utility was doing all it could at the time.
“Please know that we do care about those facilities and understand that even an hour without power for someone of that age and situation is critical,” Chadwick said.
Lucas and Morrissey agreed it was situations like this, where at-risk people were left literally in the dark, that was the most infuriating.
“Heritage Hills was always on the top of our priority list and they were one of the last places to get restored,” Morrissey said. “I don’t have an answer for that, either. Restoration should have been a priority…and there were many, many residents who were out the eight days. That’s unacceptable.”
Lucas also was bewildered by NYSEG’s response and said it should have been a five- or six-hour fix for the nursing home, not four days.
“I have no idea what happened other than the system was completely overwhelmed and I can tell you I was impolite and screaming on the phone,” Lucas said. “It’s a problem and I hope to God it doesn’t happen again.”
Though Murphy asked for “cordial” and “constructive criticism” during the hearing, many residents who spoke were overcome by emotion and their testimony was met by applause from the crowd.
“I’m glad you’re here tonight,” Morrissey told the group. “My office fielded about 1,000 calls from the town of Somers that should have been directed toward NYSEG, but they’re here tonight.”
Steve Parisi, a representative from Con Edison, began by apologizing to the group for incorrect restoration times sent to many of its customers.
“The incorrect information didn’t impact the workforce or the ability to restore customers, but it did send out inaccurate information to customers, further frustrating them during the event,” Parisi said.
He told the group that the March nor’easters were the second biggest event in the company’s history, coming in just behind Superstorm Sandy.
Charles Friedberg of Somers countered that the problems with ConEd’s and NYSEG’s system were not limited to the storm.
“The problem is not just a major event. I’ve lived here for 11 years,” he said. “It’s about the systematic removal of resources from the Brewster division.”
He called the utility representatives and local and state leaders “talking heads” that wouldn’t do anything until the companies prioritize customers over shareholders.
“We need to change our legislators and the rules by which companies that have monopolies over electrical transmission lines operate,” Friedberg said. “It’s a shame I’m listening to all this up here because none of you are going to do anything and nothing is going to change.”
Andrea Peters of Somers said she wrote a letter to the New York Public Commissioner about NYSEG’s frequent power outages “long before the two major storms.”
“I’ve been losing electricity 12 to 13 times in the last year,” Peters said. “I’ve been fighting with NYSEG for years. There are power failures continually through the day. Nobody explains it and we never get answers.”
And, she said, during the storms days passed before she saw a NYSEG truck in her neighborhood.
“It’s like we’re talking about two different planets here. NYSEG is telling me they had all these people in place before the storm.
I didn’t see a NYSEG worker until Monday in my town,” Peters said. “I don’t consider a four-day restoration an acceptable restoration time. A two-day restoration isn’t something we should be applauding. I don’t commend you for that. I expect workers to be in place when there’s a major storm ready to go.”
Chadwick said sometimes workers will be at a circuit for their street, but it’s not nearby.
“I understand that it can be frustrating when you don’t see it, but they were working in our area,” said Trish Nilsen, another representative from NYSEG.
A Yorktown Heights resident pointed to problems in the system which he said exacerbated the heavy snow that fell for much of March.
“I’ve been without power for collectively over five weeks. When it does go out, it’s days,” he said. “For that to occur suggests, to my uninformed mind, that there is a critical problem with infrastructure.”
He called the response estimates from the company during the storm “clearly absurd.”
“We were without power for nine days,” he said. “How does a crew or person not realize until the deadline that they’re 48 hours behind schedule?”
Parisi agreed the utility had problems when it came to telling people about restoration times.
“I don’t know what to say about that other than it’s very complicated; getting accurate information is complicated,” he said.
Karen Whitmore, a resident of the hamlet of Carmel, demanded specific answers from NYSEG on when the aging infrastructure would be updated.
“We look like a 1950s or ‘60s electric grid,” Whitmore said. “We wouldn’t be talking about the crisis you talked about…if we had decent equipment and kept up with the maintenance. It’s a waste of resources and waste of time. So what do you have to say about all of these things that could prevent these outages?”