NEW YORK – New Yorkers railed Sunday against a utility that has lagged behind others in restoring power two weeks after the superstorm that socked the region, criticizing its slow pace as well as a dearth of information.
About 120,000 customers in New York and New Jersey remained without power Sunday, including tens of thousands of homes and businesses that were too damaged to connect to power even if it was running in their neighborhood. More than 8 million lost power during the storm, and some during a later nor'easter.
Separately, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano visited with disaster-relief workers Sunday in Staten Island's Midland Beach neighborhood, which is still devastated two weeks after Sandy hit.
The lack of power restoration for a relative few in the densely populated region at the heart of the storm reinforced Sandy's fractured effect on the area: tragic and vicious to some, merely a nuisance to others.
Perhaps none of the utilities have drawn criticism as widespread, or as harsh, as the Long Island Power Authority. Nearly 50,000 of the homes and businesses it serves were still without power Sunday evening, and 55,000 more couldn't safely connect even though their local grids were back online because their wiring and other equipment had been flooded. It would need to be repaired or inspected before those homes could regain power, LIPA said.
"We certainly understand the frustration that's out there," LIPA's chief operating officer, Michael Hervey, said in a conference call late Sunday. But, he said, the storm had been worse than expected, no utility had as many workers in place beforehand as it would have liked, and the power was coming back rapidly "compared to the damage that's been incurred."
Customers told of calling LIPA multiple times a day for updates and getting no answer, or contradictory advice.
"I was so disgusted the other night," said Carrie Baram of Baldwin Harbor, who said she calls the utility three times a day. "I was up till midnight, but nobody bothered to answer the telephone."
Baram, 56, said she and her husband, Bob, go to the mall to charge their cellphones, and Bob, a sales manager, goes there to work. They trekked to her parents' house to shower. At night, they huddle under a pile of blankets and listen to the sound of fire engines, which Baram assumes are blaring because people have been accidentally setting blazes with their generators.
"It's dark," said an exasperated Baram, "it's frightening, and it's freezing."
LIPA has said it knows that customers aren't getting the information they need, partly because of an outdated information technology system that it is updating. Sunday, executives said they were working on setting up information centers near the most heavily damaged areas. The company also said it had deployed 6,400 linemen to work on restoring power, compared to 200 on a normal day.
"'They're working on it, they're working on it' — that would be their common response," Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said Sunday, describing LIPA's interaction with his office.
He said LIPA had failed to answer even simple questions from its customers and that Sandy's magnitude wasn't an excuse.
"How could a utility of that size, with the financial support that it receives, fail to communicate with its residents?" he said. "Its basic logistics seem to have failed."
Mangano and other lawmakers have called for the federal government to step in and assist with restoring power to Long Island, saying LIPA could not be trusted to get the job done.
On Sunday, LIPA said it had restored power to 95 percent of homes and businesses where it was safe to receive power and that that figure would be 99 percent by the end of Tuesday. It didn't give an estimate for the remaining customers.
"When we're done, we will look at any improvements we need to make in the process," Hervey said. "My appeal to those customers is once the crews arrive, stand back and let them get their work done."
Phillip Jones, 43, a parole officer in Uniondale, said he had called LIPA about 10 times a day before his power was turned on Saturday and usually just got a busy signal. A few times he got a recording saying the company was aware of the problems and would call if it needed to speak to him.
"Which was kind of strange," Jones said, "because most of the phones were not working that well."
Jones also criticized LIPA's failure to find a way to tell people how long to expect to be without electricity.
"If they had said the lights won't be on until two weeks from now, I could have made a two-week plan," he said. Instead, he and his wife and two children had been sleeping in one bed to try to stay warm, and he missed two weeks of work. "All you could do was hope that today would be the day."
On Staten Island, Napolitano said "a lot of progress" had been made since the storm hit and especially since her last visit 10 days earlier.
"It seems like a different place," she said. "You can really tell the difference."
But, she added, there was a lot more to do. "The last big chunk" to solve, she said, is the question of how quickly power can be returned to thousands of homes without it.
If homes are not inhabitable even after power returns, she said, the government is finding temporary apartments and hotels where evacuees can stay — preferably in the same community so kids can continue going to the same schools.
In New York City, the mayor's office said about 6,000 residents of low-income housing were still without power in 30 buildings. Ahead of a Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city was "getting more generators in" and added, "It's a question of how quickly the electricians can set things up."
He said heating is "a more complex problem, but that's coming along as well."
Police raised the city's death toll from the storm to 43, after the death of a 77-year-old retired custodian who apparently fell down the stairs of his apartment building in the Rockaways, when it was dark and without power. Family members found him on Oct. 31; he died at a hospital Saturday.
Though New York and New Jersey bore the brunt of the destruction, at its peak, the storm reached 1,000 miles across, killed more than 100 people in 10 states, knocked out power to 8.5 million and canceled nearly 20,000 flights. More than 12 inches of rain fell in Easton, Md., and 34 inches of snow fell in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Damage has been estimated at $50 billion, making Sandy the second most expensive storm in U.S. history, behind Katrina.
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.