EMERSON HILL — Staten Island residents complained Wednesday about Con Edison's response during Superstorm Sandy, telling a state panel the electric giant should bury power lines underground and improve its emergency communication systems.
“There was very limited communication,” John Tobacco, founder of Guyon Rescue volunteer hub in Oakwood, told members of the Moreland Commission at the panel's first public hearing in the borough since the hurricane.
“With no phones working and limited communication, it seemed like it made the process go a bit longer."
It was the first opportunity for Staten Island residents to sound off to the panel, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo activated in November to evaluate how the state's power companies performed during the storm.
“It’s really about what went wrong, how and why did it go wrong, and how do we fix it?” Moreland Commission co-chairman Benjamin Lawsky told the crowd gathered at the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Sea View.
While some praised Con Ed's response after the storm, others at the meeting complained about the lack of information Con Ed provided and the confusion over how to restore power.
Nearly 70 percent of Con Ed customers on Staten Island lost power after the storm, according to the panel. Many residents were forced to hire licensed electricians to replace their home's electric panels — something many residents complained they could not afford to do.
Tobacco, 42, said Sandy victims who flocked to Guyon Rescue after the storm had little or no contact with Con Ed. In the future, he suggested that power workers should set up tents closer to impacted neighborhoods to allow residents to ask questions directly.
A spokesman for the energy company said that they kept in touch with residents using several methods, and are looking to improve communications during emergencies using phone messages.
“We restored service to more than 1.1 million customers following Hurricane Sandy, which was by far the most devastating storm in New York City history, and we communicated with customers by phone, through the media, via social media, and other means," said Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Ed.
"We are seeking to improve our emergency communications by providing individual estimated restoration times to customers and offering text messaging and other mobile technologies.”
The Moreland Commission panel has already hosted five similar meeting across the state, and has sent Cuomo a preliminary report.
In fact, Cuomo proposed many of the remedial measures noted it the panel's first report during his State of the State speech and budget plans, including giving the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) more muscle to penalize failing energy companies.
“It’s toothless,” said Robert Abrams, co-chairman of the Moreland Commission. “It does not have the kind of strength, power and remedies to protect the people of New York State."
The panel has suggested that power companies' maximum penalties should be increased to better match its revenue, and to make it easier for the PSC to levy fines.
Speakers at the hearing also suggested that the power lines on Staten Island be buried underground to help prevent future outages.
After the meeting, Tobacco said he was encouraged that the governor had contacted volunteers who worked directly in affected neighborhoods. He also said he's confident Cuomo will enact the necessary changes.
“The governor’s office is the only one who reached out to me and said ‘Hey, your boots on the ground. What’s really going on in Staten Island?’” he said. “I’m most impressed with him out of anybody that has reached out to me.”
Cuomo tapped the state's Moreland Act, first established in 1907, to activate the panel that is now charged with evaluating the power utilities' effectiveness during Hurricane Sandy and improving future performance.