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Editorial

To bury the power lines, or not?

Posted

Tropical Storm Isaias marched up the Eastern Seaboard Aug. 4 with 70-mph winds that snapped trees in half or ripped them out of the ground, often sending them crashing onto power lines, leaving 420,000 Long Island ratepayers without electricity.

PSEG Long Island had promised to respond faster to restore power than its predecessor, the Long Island Power Authority. Last Saturday, four days after the storm, 60,000 Long Islanders were still without electricity, however, and thousands remained that way through Tuesday — a week after the storm.

As Isaias blew through, communications between customers and PSEG-LI rapidly broke down, with people unable to send messages about lost power, despite the $1 billion in taxpayer and ratepayer funds that the utility had invested in upgrading its communications and smart-meter networks in recent years.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, plans to hold hearings on the response to Isaias by utilities across the state, including the communications response by PSEG-LI, Altice and Verizon.

The question is, what will come of those hearings? Will we vent our anger, and let that be the end of it? Will we seek another utility company to manage Long Island’s electrical system, as we did after Hurricane Sandy in 2012-13? Or will we work toward a more durable solution, one that considers the long-term effects of repeated tropical storms and hurricanes on an island that juts 118 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, and one that hardens our infrastructure so we never again have to suffer the crippling damage that Isaias, and so many storms before, have left in their wakes?

We can upgrade the communications network all we want, but as last week’s storm made clear, that effort would likely prove futile. If $1 billion wasn’t enough to fix the communications system well enough to respond to a tropical storm, then what amount would be needed to prepare for a Category 4 hurricane — with wind speeds double that of Isaias and a million people trying to message PSEG-LI all at once?

One possible solution would be to bury the electric and cable wires, ensuring that they would remain stable and protected in hurricanes, tropical storms, ice storms and run-of-the-mill thunderstorms. The trouble is, burying lines is a massive undertaking that would require an investment of billions of dollars. Still, we should at least study it.

Consider this case study of one typical small South Shore community. During Isaias, a tree came down on Merrick Road in Merrick, near the Meadowbrook Parkway, cutting power to a .36-mile-long commerce zone just to the east.

Within that small business district are two supermarkets, 11 restaurants, a frozen yogurt shop and an ice cream parlor, which had to throw out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of food that had gone bad or melted because refrigeration was lost — in the case of one pizzeria alone, $50,000 worth, on top of the business it lost during the two days it had no power.

There are 22 other businesses on this strip, ranging from a clothing shop to a gas station, a dry cleaner, a ballet studio and an insurance agency, as well as offices for a cosmetic surgeon, an attorney, a veterinarian and a pediatric dentist.

Now, project all the lost goods and services in this commerce zone across Long Island, and you begin to understand the enormity of the economic hit that comes with even a relatively small-scale storm like Isaias. When we speak of storm damage, we generally talk about the price of repairs. Rarely do we consider the cost of business interruptions. This clearly needs greater deliberation.

Burying lines, at an estimated cost of $1 million per mile, would undoubtedly raise electricity rates, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Spreading the project over decades, however, could mitigate the increase, while ensuring that future generations needn’t suffer as we have. Anaheim, Calif., is burying all its lines over 50 years, necessitating a 4 percent customer surcharge — or $4 per month for every $100 of electric use — while the cable TV companies must pay to bury their lines. The program began in 1990.

With the climate crisis threatening to bring bigger hurricanes in the future, now, not later, is the time to act.