One advantage LIPA has going forward, says Hervey, is that its new operating contract with PSEG gives it more leverage than it ever had. As he spoke to the Press, he said that representatives of PSEG were in the building already working on the transition. “They’ve looked over the system and are very comfortable with it.”
One glaring finding from the study was how LIPA could not handle the volume of customer calls—no doubt a factor in LIPA ranking last in customer satisfaction in a survey of major U.S. utilities released earlier this month by J.D Power and Associates. Its electric rates, among the highest in the nation, are another reason.
“The first three or four days [after Irene] perhaps up to 20 percent of our calls got blocked because of congestion in the phone system,” says Hervey.
Too many customers called the “1-800-Ask-LIPA” number, which wasn’t an emergency number, he explains, and Verizon had never told LIPA that calls from Suffolk couldn’t make it to LIPA headquarters because of the phone system’s configuration. But that problem has been corrected—those calls will be automatically forwarded in an emergency—and Verizon will give LIPA’s “800 numbers” a national, not a regional, priority, which means that other call centers will handle them if necessary.
Hervey says LIPA will make sure that public officials have their own hotline numbers—and if they leak it to the public, as a village mayor did last August—it will be changed. LIPA will also update officials with a conference call twice a day. It also plans to expand its usage of social media so that data can become “operational”—Hervey’s term—if it requires action, say, if someone tells LIPA on its Facebook account that a “transformer is on fire.”
What LIPA has to do, Hervey says, is “set the proper expectations for our customers… Ahead of the hurricane we never really stood up and said, ‘Look, customers, this could really be one to two weeks.’” Knowing that possibility, he says residents would take longer precautions, stocking up on supplies, buying a small generator, making contingency plans to stay somewhere else if need be.
One thing LIPA can’t do, Hervey admits, is bury all the power lines—it would cost $30 billion. The Vantage report recommended that tree trimmers clear a wider corridor for the lines, 10 feet rather than six, but Hervey says, with a wan smile, “We love our trees on Long Island.”
At present, there are some 300 to 400 linemen on call. Following Irene, some 4,000 workers—thousands from out of state—came to the Island to help.