This past week was one like no other in our village, and that may be an understatement. We so hoped Sandy would choose another path, but when it became apparent the East Coast was in her crosshairs, our village staff ramped up and were ready.
Our Department of Public Works cleaned drains, filled and distributed sandbags, collected leaves so they would not clog sewers, village trees were trimmed and our village fuel pumps were topped off.
We issued a State of Emergency to qualify for any FEMA funding, suspended parking meter payment and enforcement, and allowed all residents to move cars to higher ground and park in any public space.
Pre-storm, our superintendent of public works asked Con Ed municipal liaisons to be assigned to Village Hall and we were so fortunate to have Vivian Dole and Kerry Karen literally working next door to my office 24/7.
Though we were thankfully spared any flood and our school never lost power, the damage from winds and fallen trees was widespread. Of Con Ed customers in Westchester, Bronxville had more folks without power (94 percent) than any other Westchester community. At the peak of the outage, 2,598 residential accounts in our village had no power.
As a consequence of Sandy’s wrath, more than 175,000 other Westchester residents also lost power including three major hospitals, dozens of nursing homes, 142 schools, over 100 polling places and water and sewage plants. These understandably became Con Edison’s priority as well as the over 500 road closures caused by fallen trees and live wires.
After these “critical facilities” were restored to power, Con Ed used a triage method attending to customers with medical issues, then making the least complicated repairs followed by repairs that re-energized the most homes. As is quite logical, one of our Con Ed employees explained that if a three-hour repair can provide power to three apartment buildings versus the same time expended to re-light a 20 house street, they opt for the former.
Unfortunately, many of Bronxville’s repairs did not involve the simple reset of a transformer, rather ours proved complex with downed trees, wires and broken telephone poles complicating the mix.
Our team worked very closely with Con Ed in a very polite but firm way, and I believe proving the old adage that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
We also were truly blessed that our first restoration crew was captained by Mike Dillon whom we dubbed Mike the Magician. To our good fortune, Mike began his successful career at Con Ed by reading meters in Bronxville so places like Prescott Square and Chestnut Street were easily located by him. We also sent a Department of Public Works employee out with the Con Ed crews to further familiarize them with our winding streets.
The boots on the ground who came to help us in the village were superb from Vivian, Kerry, Mike and his crew to the wonderful PIKE crew from Ocala, Fla., who energized much of the Hilltop, Sunnybrae and Homesdale. And to all your credit, they remarked that folks in the village waved to them, clapped, said thanks for being here, offered coffee, water and heat and clearly understood “shooting the messenger” was not going to produce results.
Was Con Ed’s response textbook? Absolutely not. Should they be vilified for political gain? Absolutely not. Upon reflection, I think Con Ed’s own worst enemy was Con Ed. If anyone invites me to a “Lessons Learned,” the following are just some of the glaring and so easily fixable gaps in their response to the crisis.
- Label your trucks – for the first two to three days every community saw “cut and clear” trucks which were responsible for only working in tandem with local Department of Public Works to remove trees and deactivate wires. However, from a public relations standpoint, residents saw trucks for hours in the village and yet not one house was re-energized. The confusion of mission only served to frustrate. We canceled Halloween precisely because we had over 50 live wires throughout the village during this period.
- Have the “site safety” team wear vests saying as much so folks will know they are there to guard a live wire from pedestrian or auto traffic. If these fellows read the paper and drink coffee because no one is near the wire, it is not a dereliction of their specific duty. It is only “restoration crews” which should be so marked that have the skill and expertise to re-power lines.
- Con Ed has actual phone staff telling residents, “The village is a low priority,” “There are no trucks in your community,” “You are only one of two houses without power in your neighborhood” – all of which seemed to come out of whole cloth and only served to frustrate villagers and necessitate calls to Village Hall.
- Also, robo calls with an ETA of service resumption should not be transmitted unless the reliability is above 90 percent. Many residents relied on these calls in terms of whether to leave town or gauge grocery purchases only to have them prove unreliable.
- And in the real “head scratcher” moment for me, in 2012 why are repeated calls of our particular outages the best method for translating an electrical problem? Can it not be deduced that if 50 Park and 54 Park do not have power, that 52 Park also on the same feeder does not have power?
That being said, our village worked as a team. Our cooperation with our Con Ed representatives was friendly in spite of escalating tensions and the extraordinary restraint and perspective of all of our residents in acknowledging frustration but also seeing the village as part of a whole, far bigger, spectrum of loss on the East Coast.
Once we have taken the time to review the response of the village and Con Ed on dealing with Hurricane Sandy, our next conversation must now center on the cost and possible implementation of underground wires.