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Expecting the Worst, Utilities Will Focus on a Rapid Recovery


Coping with Hurricane Sandy is a battle that utility companies in the New York metropolitan area will have to fight on two fronts: at the level of their power lines, which the storm’s strong winds will threaten to rip down, and along the waterfront, where surging waters could flood critical equipment.

But the utilities might also be measured by another yardstick: how quickly they respond to power losses, especially in light of the fact that many in the region were left without electricity for a week or more after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. This time, the potential impact in and around New York City appears much worse.

Though the 2011 storm’s winds and rains devastated parts of the region, particularly to the north, the surge did not breach the sea walls of Manhattan or Brooklyn significantly enough to cause major flooding in the city. And the city’s main utility, Consolidated Edison, was not forced to cut off power to any of its networks in the city during the storm.

This time, the company was preparing to shut off two of its networks in Lower Manhattan, known as Fulton and Beekman, if the water in the harbor surged over the bulkheads around the Battery, a city official said. Con Edison said it also was prepared to shut off networks in low-lying parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

“We’re looking at two networks in Lower Manhattan,” the city official said. “If the storm comes to a point where it’s going to endanger the infrastructure, they’d rather save the system.” The official added, “It all depends on the surge, if it goes to what it’s predicted for, that’s when it will happen.”

The potential loss of power, the official said, led to the decision to evacuate New York Downtown Hospital, which does not have its own backup power system.

Con Edison said that shutting off the underground equipment could prevent “extensive damage to company and customer equipment, and allow company crews to restore power to customers more quickly.”

As a precaution, Con Edison decided to halt the distribution of steam to some buildings in Lower Manhattan that use it for heating and cooling, a company spokesman said on Sunday. The steam pipes run underground and if cool floodwater surrounds them, they could burst.

After the mandatory evacuation of Fire Island, the Long Island Power Authority planned to “de-energize” the island, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said. That would leave anyone who defied the evacuation order without power until the storm passes.

At a briefing on Sunday morning, Mr. Cuomo said his staff had pressed the power authority to do a better job of communicating with customers than they had before Tropical Storm Irene and the surprise snowstorm last October. “We’ve talked to LIPA about that at length and on many levels, trust me on that,” the governor said. “They heard us after the last storm.”

Con Edison did not provide an estimate of how long its customers might be without power before the storm hit. In contrast, the parent company of Jersey Central Power and Light warned on Friday that it could take as long as 10 days after the storm clears to repair all of the lines, poles and other equipment that could be damaged. Another utility in New Jersey, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company, said restoration could take a full week.

The utilities were scrambling to bring in enough help from outside their territories to clear branches and fallen trees, replace broken poles and string new lines once the winds die down.

By Monday morning, Jersey Central expected to have 1,300 crews, arriving from as far away as Florida and Iowa, to augment its staff of 400, said Chris Eck, a spokesman for First Energy, which owns it and 10 other utilities, most of which operate within the projected swath of Hurricane Sandy.

But, he said, there was no way to predict when those crews would be able to start restoring electricity to customers.

“We can’t put guys up in bucket trucks or on ladders if there’s over 50 mile per hour winds,” Mr. Eck said.

Connecticut Light and Power was seeking 2,000 outside crews to fix lines and 700 to clear trees, said Mitch Gross, a spokesman for the utility in Berlin, Conn. By Sunday afternoon, he said, the company had received commitments from 1,000 line crews and 500 tree crews from around the country. One group of workers flew in from Seattle, Mr. Gross said.

The company was barraged with criticism from customers and municipal and state officials after its response to Tropical Storm Irene, so the company was trying to prepare them for another long period without power if Sandy turns out to be as bad, or worse.

“The past year has been all about improving storm response,” Mr. Gross said. “We’re ready, but there’s no way to prevent widespread outages in the wake of a devastating storm.”

Some Connecticut residents had clearly gotten the message. At a Lowe’s home improvement store in Torrington, Conn., people packed the aisles, loading their carts with batteries, flashlights and more substantial supplies.

“We got about 100 generators delivered yesterday and today, and they’re all gone,” said Steve Martin, the store’s assistant manager.