10 years after Superstorm Sandy, Long Island's electric grid looks different
Ten years ago this Saturday, Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island. The hurricane brought high-speed winds, heavy rains, and a 14-foot storm surge. Half a million people lost power for more than a week.
Since then, the Long Island Power Authority has upgraded the electric grid to prevent widespread outages in future storms.
Michael Sullivan, senior director of transmission and distribution operations at PSEG Long Island, which manages the grid for LIPA, has seen the island through its recovery.
Sullivan helps operates one of the major electrical substations on Rockaway Beach. He met with WSHU's podcast Higher Ground in 2021 on this barrier islands off of Long Island’s South Shore, one of the multiple massive coastal dunes that shelter the mainland from direct contact with the Atlantic Ocean.
The inside of the substation looked industrial. Chain-linked fences topped with barbed wire protect the substation from anyone coming off the main road here and tampering with the equipment inside. An electrical buzz filled the building.
“That's comforting for me as a utility professional, because I know that the transformer is doing what it's supposed to do, supplying electricity,” Sullivan said.
After Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $730 million to help harden the hundred Long Island substations and make them more resilient. That included the raising of 12 coastal substations and the installation of more than 150 of these automated switches.
“Unfortunately, sometimes things do happen,” Sullivan said. “And people do experience power outages. But with the installation of all these automated switches, the duration of that power outage is much less along the way because we have the ability to operate things from the office, and not necessarily have somebody out in the field to operate those switches.”
The control house, breaker cubicles, and battery system have all been raised off the ground to protect them from future flooding.
Outside, there are large power cables coming into the substation.
“Electricity is generated at generating stations, and there's a bunch of generating stations throughout Long Island,” Sullivan said. “It's generated through renewable energies like wind, solar, hydro or fossil fuel like natural gas, or energy that's created outside of our region and brought in through transmission systems”
Most of the power gets to people’s homes through overhead wires. Storms like Sandy got people talking about burying those wires to make them impervious to wind damage.
Sullivan said that while underground may seem more appealing, the cost and complicated maintenance makes the task daunting.
“One of the advantages of things being in the air is when something happens, you can find a problem relatively quickly, Sullivan said. “When it's underground, finding things like that just takes a little bit longer, not impossible, but just takes a little bit longer.”
After Sandy, federal dollars helped the utility harden about 900 miles of power lines. When that money ran out in the spring of 2020, they replaced another 60 miles in the first year using other funds from customers and the state.
All of this work is so that you don't have to worry about that.Jimmy Dunlop, PSEG Long Island foreman
The Long Island Power Authority made a commitment to reinforce infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. LIPA said it and power company PSEG Long Island were prepared for future storms.
“We saw signs of preparedness and we thought: ‘Oh good. This entity, this company is going to be better prepared for future storms than past entities had been,'" said Lauren McKellar, a nurse and mom who lives in Greenlawn. "And we were wrong. We were wrong.”
What proved them wrong in 2020 was Tropical Storm Isaias. It left many Long Islanders in the dark for more than a week. In the months that followed, McKellar and other electricity customers unloaded on PSEG Long Island — in meeting after meeting.
“We have flashlights, we have batteries, we have candles, we have board games for our kids, maybe a generator," McKellar said. "We know what to do and who to call if there's damage to the house. We know how we're going to get in touch with family members. We know who the elderly and vulnerable neighbors are that we need to check on. We have plans in place."
She said she expected her electricity company to be just as prepared. Because so-called hundred-year storms now topple Long Island's power system every few years.
Jase Bernhardt, a meteorologist at Hofstra University in New York, looks at these storms as benchmarks and uses current weather models and coastal charts to figure out how to prepare for the next storm surge.
“Sort of the key statistic to cite and all this, if we look at your Montauk, out on the east end of Long Island, you've sort of seen an average sea level rise of over a foot or so feet per 100 years," he said. "So that means in just the past 100 years, we've already had over a foot of sea level rise, and it's continuing and seeming to accelerate.”
Superstorm Sandy was a benchmark. Before that was the 1991 Perfect Storm, Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and the Great 1938 Hurricane.
“Something like the '38 hurricane was to hit again and be the biggest natural disaster in world history," Bernhardt said. "For anyone who went through Sandy, that should really, really, really make you scared."
"We're not trying to fear monger here. But it is just the truth that's happened before it will happen again. And no, we're not all prepared, Sandy showed us that are not prepared. This could be far worse,” he continued.
During Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020, over 400,000 customers lost power on Long Island. Many customers were out for a week.
Debris and broken tree limbs felled by fierce winds challenged utility crews during the clean-up. To make matters worse, the system the power company uses to communicate restoration times with customers was fried.
LIPA penalized PSEG Long Island, but stopped short of replacing its contract with them to run the regional electric grid.
“We've invested record amounts of money over $4.2 billion with some expectation that we were really going to move the utility from a place that was subpar to really among the most excellent, the top performing utilities in the country," said LIPA CEO Tom Falcone in May 2021 during a hearing to determine the future of its relationship with the utility company.
“The contract that was entered into and began in 2014 for management services was a good attempt, but we're eight years in, and now we can learn.”
"In the past 100 years, we've already had over a foot of sea level rise, and it's continuing and seeming to accelerate."Jase Bernhardt, Hofstra meteorologist
In the field a few months later, Sullivan, who lived in Rockaway Beach blocks away from the once-drowned substation, said PSEG Long Island learned its lesson during Sandy.
“Just because you live around the corner from a substation doesn't necessarily mean that your power is going to be more reliable,” Sullivan laughed. “It doesn't matter if you're the first customer outside the substation or the last customer, the same level of service will be afforded to you along the way.”
Jimmy Dunlop, the foreman of the four-man overhead crew, works 16-hour days with PSEG Long island during wide-spread power outages and often fields questions from customers hoping their lights will come on soon.
“I try to explain it to them,” Dunlap said. “So that, you know, they realize that it might be a smaller outage part of why they're out. And we have large outages, and we always take care of it down, you know, to the smallest. And that's really the way you have to go.”
"All of this work is so that you don't have to worry about that," Dunlop said.
He takes his orders from headquarters in an industrial park about half an hour away without traffic in Hicksville.
Inside the control room, Abhinav Kumar, the senior supervisor, is surrounded by monitors with operators looking at several screens at the same time. And it’s not all digital: A big conference table in the middle has piles of paper maps the size of window drapes. Each for different service areas.
"Everyone's got bunch of circuits they're responsible for, and they're restoring that circuit, and they're communicating with the field personnel. You're on a phone every second," Kumar said. "You hear the phone ringing, these phones just don't stop ringing during a storm."
"It is like the brain, right?" He laughed. "A lot of times, it's nice and quiet. But when it gets busy — it's chaotic..."
To hear the whole story, listen to Higher Ground wherever you get your podcasts.