Isaias: State of Emergency issued, utilities say could be days for return

At least one public official criticized a utility in Rockland County for being unprepared as state and local officials assessed the damage.

Isabel Keane Christopher J. Eberhart
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

UPDATE: A new story has been posted with the latest information on outages and damage caused by Isaias. Click here to be directed to that page. 

At the start of the day Wednesday, more than more than 200,000 people and businesses were without power after Tropical Storm Isaias ravaged the Lower Hudson Valley.

Crews worked all day to restore power to as many people as possible, but downed power lines, uprooted trees and debris blocked slowed restoration times. 

Driving was a challenge, with traffic lights out — or running on generator power — and detours posted. Crews worked to restore power.

By midday, the governor called for an investigation into the utilities' response to the storm and declared a State of Emergency for Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, New York, Orange, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk counties. 

Con Ed reported 93,281 customers without power in Westchester, which was hit hardest, said Matthew Sniffen, vice president of Con Edison, during a 4:15 p.m. press briefing via Zoom.

ConEd said it has dispatched 900 workers to restore power and that the hardest hit communities were Briarcliff Manor, Dobbs Ferry, Eastchester, Harrison, Mount Vernon, Greenburgh, Yonkers and Yorktown. 

Sniffen said crews restored power for about 20,000 customers by 4 p.m. Although he didn't have the exact number, Sniffen said a large chunk of the remaining customers will have power back by 7 a.m. Thursday and everyone else will have power by latest on Sunday. 

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NYSEG reported at approximately 10 a.m. that 28,633 customers in Westchester and 33,490 in Putnam were without power, although the utility's website was down most of Wednesday. Most of the reported outages were in Carmel and Somers.

The utility said crews were dealing with more than a thousand downed wires and hundreds of broken poles. Restoring power could take several days, NYSEG said.

There were 3,619 homes in Putnam with Central Hudson without power. 

In Rockland, there were 44,713 O&R customers without power Wednesday. The utility company said some will get power earlier than others, but some customers will have to wait until next week. 

"Orange & Rockland plans to finish restoring power by Tuesday night, August 11 at 11 p.m. to the vast majority of the approximately 200,000 customers who lost service in yesterday’s fast-moving, hard-hitting storm," O&R said in a statement. 

"Restoration efforts will be further supported (Wednesday) by over 150 additional contractor overhead line technicians," the utility company said. "O&R is seeking another 750 overhead line technicians from its mutual aid and contractor partners. O&R’s 1,100-person workforce has been fully mobilized to restore service."

Central Hudson reported more than 31,800 outages in Orange County and 11,250 in Ulster County. Most of those were in the Cornwall, New Windsor, Montgomery, Shokan, New Paltz and Highland, per the outage map. More than 9,000 remain without power in Newburgh, which has some of the highest number of outages in the region. 

O&R reported 6,361 homes were without power in Sullivan County. 

Nearly 5,000 Sullivan and Ulster county customers of NYS Electric and Gas Corp. were without power, according to their outage map as of 8 a.m. Wednesday. About a fifth of those were restored by 10:30 a.m.

Traffic lights lie on the side of Rt. 59 at Crosfield Ave. in West Nyack Aug. 5, 2020. They fell during the storm the night before.

Injury, meet insult

For residents, the storm was the latest indignity of 2020.

The coronavirus had forced them from their workplaces into their homes. Now power outages had rendered their homes less than ideal. WiFi was out, cellphone service spotty, and working from home became impossible.

Travel throughout the region remained an exercise in improvisation, with roads closed, detours posted and traffic lights out.

Some towns opened charging centers for residents to plug in and get their tech back and running.

In anticipation of the storm, the utilities had assured customers they would follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance in their response to power outages. In a pandemic, that means masks and asking customers to keep social distance from utility workers.

2nd to Sandy

The damage from wind, flash floods and downed trees was severe.

ConEd said it was their second largest outage, behind Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Wednesday’s damage left 257,000 of its customers in Westchester and New York City without power. 

"The company has already restored service to more than 48,000 customers. But it is clear the restoration of all customers will take multiple days," ConEd said Tuesday night. 

The short answer to the “when” is that the bigger the impact on a neighborhood, the faster the lights will come back on.

"Crews will give priority to making repairs that will provide power to the most customers quickly, then restore smaller groups and individual customers," the utility said in a statement.

Part of the delay is that it involves a bit of a dance between utility workers and town DPW workers. Towns can't remove branches until they're sure the power is shut. And power can't be restored until the branches have been removed.

All that takes time.

Anger in town hall

As crews fanned out to free live and arcing power lines from downed trees and limbs, the utility was getting low marks from local officials, and from Albany. 

“O&R just wasn't really prepared for this one," Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann said. "We took the brunt of this, almost 90% of the town's population was out of power at one point during the storm."

"Now about 14,000, about half the people in the town, are without power," Hoehmann said Wednesday afternoon. "We still have police officers guarding live wires."

Hoehmann said a dozen Clarkstown houses were damaged, with only one uninhabitable, according to building inspectors.

“We’re fed up … pretty disappointed," he said. "Look, it’s a major storm, but we have to get to a point where we have to stop telling people they’re  going to be out for days.”

“For the rates we’re paying , what is their plan to really fix some of these troublesome areas? What are they doing to make sure these resources are in place? This was not a surprise.

“Twenty hours after the storm they’re still assessing and residents can’t get information and they’re calling us,” the supervisor said.

In Westchester, New Castle Town Supervisor Ivy Pool took to Facebook to update residents, calling it a “staggering, widespread outage” affecting 3,951 of the town’s 6,800 households.

Downed branches and wires had closed 66 roads in New Castle, she reported. 

She said that at Wednesday’s status update with ConEd and elected officials, the utility told municipalities “Don’t expect many restorations today.”

“We are beyond frustrated,” Pool wrote. “We are furious. And sadly, we are not alone. Municipalities throughout Westchester are demanding answers – where are the Con Edison crews working now? When will they arrive in our town? Why aren’t they here yet? When they do arrive how long will it take to restore power? Will they work 24/7?”

As for now, Pool said, those questions still had no answers.

Cuomo wants a probe

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement blasting the state's utilities for poor storm preparation.

"We know that severe weather is our new reality and the reckless disregard by utility companies to adequately plan for tropical storm Isaias left tens of thousands of customers in the dark, literally and figuratively. Their performance was unacceptable," he said. 

Cuomo called for the state's public service department to "launch an investigation into Verizon, PSEG Long Island, Con Edison, Central Hudson Gas & Electric, Orange and Rockland Utilities, and New York State Electric & Gas to understand how such a failure could have taken place. New Yorkers deserve answers and they deserve better." 

An emergency in Putnam

Within minutes of Cuomo's announcement, Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell declared a state of emergency for the county.

“This storm caused an unprecedented amount of damage to our electrical infrastructure with an estimated 86% of all customers without power,” Odell's announcement said, adding that the declaration would "enable our resources to be effectively deployed."

The declaration was to last no more than five days, Odell said.  

For some elected officials, the outage was personal.

When Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny reached out to residents Wednesday — to report that 6,656 residents of the town (or 46%) were without power — she wrote "take consolation in the fact that I am one of them."

Kenny then offered the air-conditioned lobby of the town hall for those needing to cool off or charge their devices.

Traffic lights on generators

Police scanners crackled with officers responding to calls of hanging wires, wires arcing, inoperable traffic signals and roads made impassable by downed trees.

Kieran O’Leary, spokesman for Westchester’s Department of Public Safety, said a morning conference call with municipal administrators revealed that power outages and downed trees were the main concerns facing the region.

In Rockland, Emergency Services Coordinator Chris Kear said the county’s fire departments had responded to 240 incidents, half of which were related to downed trees. Fires in Piermont and Pearl River were not total losses and involved fires inside walls of home.

“Our call volume has been steady, with mostly power-related calls,” Kear said. 

With traffic signals powerless, Rockland dispatched 10 generators to Ramapo and another three to Clarkstown, permitting traffic to continue to flow. The town of Haverstraw had its own generators, Kear said.

Somers Police hooked up to a town-owned generator the traffic light at the major Route 35-Route 100 intersection, Supervisor Rick Morrissey said.

“We’ve learned in the past, not being able to do anything at those intersections, so we had DOT equip the (Route) 35 and 100 lights with a device that we could just plug into and set up a generator,” Morrissey said. “It’s paying off.”

That intersection, he said, “is like 12 lanes of traffic” with the various turning lanes and more. 

Another generator will be added at Route 100 and 202, in front of the Town House, to run the traffic light there, Morrissey said, and a third is likely to be used to run the traffic light at Route 202-Route 139-Brick Hill Road.

Morrissey said the town has also requested, through the Westchester County emergency operations center, to have State Police provide traffic assistance at various intersections.

The town of Yorktown was hard hit, with all of the town’s municipal buildings without power and 18 generators being used to power traffic signals at key intersections.

Storm clouds move into downtown Silver Lake during Tropical Storm Isaias  Aug. 4, 2020.

911 trouble

In Rockland, four 911 cellphone towers had lost power and were operating on backup generators, Kear said.

Meanwhile, on Deans Corner Road in Southeast on Tuesday, power went out to a cellphone tower along Interstate 684. When the power went out, a backup generator went on. When the generator went on, it promptly caught fire, affecting cell service in the area, along the Westchester-Putnam border.

Thomas Lannon, director of Putnam County's technology office, said: "While there was a fire at the cell tower in question, I have no information if all carriers on that tower are down or just one. What we do know is that cell service across the county are negatively impacted for all carriers. We had reports that cell towers in this region (Putnam, Orange, Rockland, Passaic) were damaged during the storms. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint would have to comment on anything additional." 

The 911 situation in Orange County was worse.

Orange County's 911 call services were down for 13 hours due to a phone outage. 

Calls to Orange 911 were temporarily rerouted to Rockland and Sullivan counties' Emergency Communications Centers after the outage started on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Messages sent through text messages to 911 were not disrupted.

As of 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Brendan Casey, the county's commissioner of emergency services, said the county's 911 services were fully restored.

Casey said the county did not know of any emergencies that had been missed or delayed due to the outage. The number of calls the county received during the outage period was not immediately available. 

The 911 problem began with a power outage in the City of Middletown, where the county's phone services provider, Frontier Communications, keeps its equipment to run main switches to phone lines throughout parts of Orange and Sullivan counties, according to Casey. 

"There were several equipment failures there related to the power outage," Casey said.

"Their backup system failed, their switch failed, battery issues that resulted in a minor hazmat issue. It was like everything just failed up there."

Utility websites down

By the early hours of Wednesday, Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. had its website restored after it went down for several hours due to the storm. As of 7:50 a.m. Wednesday, 89,264 of its customers were without power.

When it will be restored remains up in the air. 

"We anticipate we’ll be working through the week and quite possibly through the weekend to restore the power to everyone," spokesman John Maserjian said. 

Meanwhile, ConEd dispatched teams to distribute ice to customers at Cortlandt Town Center in Mohegan Lake and the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers.

A bicyclist makes its way through downed wires in Tarrytown Aug. 4, 2020 after heavy winds and rain hit the Lower Hudson Valley as Tropical Storm Isaias made its way up the Atlantic coast.

Contributing: Robert Brum, Nancy Cutler, Michael P. McKinney, Rachel Ettlinger.

Isabel Keane covers breaking news throughout the Lower Hudson Valley.Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @ijkeane. Check out how to support local journalism here.