Recovery Efforts Left Many Towns Adrift

The Wall Street Journal - November 26, 2012

by JACOB GERSHMAN And LAURA NAHMIAS

On Long Island, Lengthy Power Failure and Lack of Manpower Forced Mayors to Improvise as Coordination Fell Short

The morning after superstorm Sandy hit Long Island, Brookville Mayor Caroline Bazzini grabbed an ax and chopped her way to work. But when she got to Village Hall, there was no power, no phone service, no way to reach her constituents.

A staff member picked up a two-way radio, one of hundreds given to local New York officials through a federal grant so they could communicate in an emergency. That didn't work, either.

"The whole thing just fell apart," Ms. Bazzini said of the state and Nassau County's post-Sandy coordination. "They never returned a phone call after the disaster started. All these villages all over Long Island were basically all on their own."

For many mayors on Long Island, where the storm response was less coordinated than it was in New York City, the first few days after Sandy were a chaotic and sometimes frightening experience.

Mr. Cuomo and his emergency management team have generally received good reviews for their response in the city, where subway service was partially restored within days and widespread power failures didn't linger. But as the storm unfolded on Long Island, it became clear that state and county emergency agencies had underestimated the demand for manpower and equipment and the challenges of transporting them. A chaotic competition followed for security guards, debris-removal crews, portable lights, gasoline and other resources.

Village mayors said their difficulties communicating with state and county officials were compounded by a prolonged power failure that raised questions about the state's oversight of the Long Island Power Authority and by a gasoline shortage for which the Cuomo administration had few immediate answers.

The confusion was particularly felt in Nassau County, where the emergency operations center in Bethpage included representatives from towns but struggled to process requests from the island's diffuse collection of villages. Two mayors said their emergency radios didn't work. Others said they didn't know whom to call for help after their initial pleas went unanswered for days. Many said they were forced to improvise for solutions or make personal overtures to Mr. Cuomo for supplies.

"This was an immense failure of leadership at all levels--a failure of leadership, management, coordination, planning, cooperation and communications," said Mark Weiss, the mayor of Hewlett Harbor, a village on Nassau County's South Shore.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to comment. Cuomo officials said the state has formed three new commissions to review the state's disaster plans and infrastructure to minimize damage and disruption during future storms. The review will also focus on improving coordination between state and local officials, one official said.

Nassau County Deputy Executive Rob Walker said the county's emergency management during the storm was comprehensive and that all requests for aid were funneled through a chain of command. "Everything that is requested is put in as a mission by the state and federal government," Mr. Walker said.

Some mayors had smoother experiences than others. "Whatever I did ask for, whether it be from the governor, lieutenant governor or any of our other elected officials, they were great," said Thomas Brennan, the mayor of the Village of Lindenhurst in Suffolk County.

Martin Oliner, the mayor of the village of Lawrence in Nassau, said he tried in vain to get the county's emergency office to send over portable lights and extra security guards. He said there were two or three police cars patrolling the streets. Lawrence had no reports of looting, "but when you're totally dark, you're nervous," he said. He finally delivered a letter to Mr. Cuomo on Nov. 6 on behalf of two dozen other Long Island mayors expressing anger at the overall absence of "coordination, flexibility and responsiveness."

On Nov. 8, after Mr. Oliner reached out to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, he got a call from Mr. Cuomo, who assured him help was on the way. That was when "everything started happening," said Mr. Oliner. "We started getting crews, security, lights."

Ms. Bazzini, Brookville's mayor, was one of two mayors who said she tried and failed to contact emergency officials on a radio issued by Nassau County as part of a multimillion-dollar federal grant the state received to boost emergency communications.

The radios worked in the Town of North Hempstead, where Supervisor Jon Kaiman said they were used only by first responders. But many local government officials and public works crews, instrumental in planning the poststorm cleanup, weren't trained to use them.

A widespread and lingering power crisis strained the response effort. For more than a week, hundreds of thousands of Long Island residents had no electricity and no reliable way to find out when it would return.

LIPA, an authority controlled by the state like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, lacked a computer system to track basic information about which customers had lost power.

Gil Quiniones, chief operating officer of the New York Power Authority, said LIPA was supposed to preposition 3,000 utility workers from neighboring utilities on the island. The governor didn't learn until the day after the storm that LIPA had managed to position only 400 line workers, Mr. Quiniones said. That day, Mr. Cuomo quickly deployed Mr. Quiniones to Long Island from Schoharie County, where he was initially sent, to help press more utility crews into service.

On Nov. 13, Mr. Cuomo appointed a special commission to probe LIPA's performance, but industry experts say the utility's problems were already spelled out in a June report by the New York State Public Service Commission about LIPA's handling of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. "We had plenty of advance warning that this was coming," said Carl Marcellino, a Long Island Republican state senator who held a public hearing last year about LIPA's much-criticized Irene response.

Long Island's power crisis gave way to a fuel shortage, in large part caused by pipeline and shipping disruptions that were out of the state's control.

The state has a plan for disaster-related fuel shortages, but it is broadly worded and short on specifics. The state was unable to set up a system with the Defense Logistics Agency for delivering gasoline purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stations until 10 days post-storm, as the crisis receded.

Cuomo officials say they began coordinating with petroleum industry leaders and retailers after the storm. The administration and federal authorities didn't work out purchase terms with gas retailers until Nov. 8, when the governor's office circulated a 16-page contract to retailers to sign and used a Gmail address to collect their requests.

The governor initially wanted to give away free gas, using trucks provided by the U.S. Defense Department, but reversed course after mobile stations set up at National Guard armories in the city were mobbed with motorists. Hours after they were set up, Mr. Cuomo ordered the operation shut down, allowing only emergency crews and hospitals to get the gasoline. "It was such a debacle," said Kevin Beyer, the head of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association.

Disaster experts and state officials have long feared that parts of the state, and particularly Long Island, were vulnerable to storms. Since 2005, the state has issued several reports about holes in the its disaster plans. And state agencies spent years developing volumes of protocols, flowcharts and command-chains to function as a go-to crisis manual for local governments and first responders when confronting a storm like Sandy.

The state also has a Disaster Preparedness Commission, which is required to meet twice a year. It is headed by the state's homeland security commissioner, Jerome Hauer, and is made up of the heads of 32 state agencies, the Red Cross and three other members, appointed by the governor. Mr. Cuomo hasn't yet made any appointments to the commission, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Homeland Security said. Records of the commission's meetings weren't immediately available, she said.

"You can have the greatest plan in the word but it relies on several chains: chains of resources, command, communication and information," said Michael Balboni, a former Republican state senator and deputy secretary for public safety under former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. His 2006 report, "After the Storm," warned that Long Island was ill-prepared for an event like Sandy. "If you have a break in any of those chains, then the plans have a good chance of failing," he said.