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Sep 6, 2011 5:13 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Lashing Out At LIPA

Sep 6, 2011 6:05 PM

While powerless customers were “hamping” last week—a term coined, post-hurricane, for “camping at home in the Hamptons”—hundreds of line and tree repair crews from as far away as Arkansas put in 16-hour shifts and slept in dormitories at Stony Brook Southampton.

Asked if they bedded anywhere farther east, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson joked, “I don’t know—I wouldn’t let them sleep.” The supervisor said he had been meeting with LIPA workers at the East Hampton Airport, where they were organizing, three times a day: “We’d literally be out there saying, pay attention to this area” or that one, he said.

“The crews on the ground were working incredibly hard,” Mr. Wilkinson said, adding that it was the first time some of them had ever seen the ocean.

“The guys on the ground did an outstanding job,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of 4,000 workers striving to restore electricity to 553,000 Long Island Power Authority customers in the days following Hurricane Irene.

“On the management level,” however, Mr. Thiele said on Saturday, “it was pretty clear that LIPA was not prepared for this.”

The phones in the assemblyman’s Bridgehampton office were ringing off the hook from Monday morning, the day after Irene hit, to late Friday afternoon, with calls from people who wanted to know when the lights would return. “You would answer one call, have somebody on hold, and the next caller would call in,” said Mr. Thiele, who is assisted by two staff members in Bridgehampton. “It points out how frustrated people were with the Long Island Power Authority.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said much the same thing about her office: “Our phones were ringing off the hook. We were just LIPA Central.”

Rachel Lys of Cedar Ridge Drive in Springs was out of power from about 9 a.m. on Sunday to 5 p.m. on Friday. She has a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, is six months pregnant, and her house uses well water.

It was, she said, an “awful” six days: going out to crowded restaurants for expensive meals with cranky, tired kids, showering at friends’ houses, not being able to do laundry, losing all the food in the refrigerator, not being able to flush while potty-training her 2-year-old.

“My daughters are scared of the dark” and accustomed to night lights, she said, so she was “cracking glow-stick bracelets” for a substitute.

“Most people got it back before us,” she said. “Until Tuesday, we didn’t have any answers from LIPA. Then they told us Friday would be the earliest.” “They were working as hard as they could,” she said. “It was just an inconvenience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.”

Some might take solace in the fact that even the rich and well-connected lost their juice, often for extended periods. “I know for a fact that many property owners in Georgica didn’t have power as late as yesterday,” East Hampton Village Administrator Larry Cantwell said on Friday of the Georgica Beach area, from which, he said, he was getting “angry phone calls.”

While areas like Clearwater Beach in Springs were also relatively late to return to the grid, Mr. Cantwell said, “the village south of the highway suffered as much as anyone.”

At least some residents of Sagaponack Village, whose ZIP code is said to be the wealthiest in the nation, were still out of power on Saturday.

“The amazing part about it is that the LIPA grid is party and class agnostic,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “It can’t tell the rich from the poor, commercial from residential, those who have wells versus those who have city water.”

“The only difference” he said, was that there might have been “more generator activity” south of Montauk Highway enabling a “seamless” transition to backup power.

Mr. Cantwell, who lives in Northwest Woods, did not lose power, but Mr. Thiele, who lives in Sag Harbor, was without power for two days. “My power was out in excess of 30 to 35 hours starting before I even got home” the Sunday morning of Irene, said Mr. Wilkinson, who was out from 2 a.m. on that day.

In an August 30 press conference, LIPA’s chief operating officer, Michael D. Hervey, said the utility’s top priorities were to get power up for infrastructure—traffic lights, sewage plants—and critical facilities like hospitals, nursing homes and fire stations, as well as to as many individual customers as possible with each repair.

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