Con Edison power outage response was ‘unacceptable,’ council speaker says at hearing

Con Ed officials attended a hearing Wednesday focused on preventing incidents like the July 21 blackout that left more than 50,000 in the dark.

The New York City Council speaker blasted Con Edison at an oversight hearing Wednesday, calling the energy company’s preparation for and response to blackouts that left parts of the city without power in July “unacceptable” and “embarrassing.”

The first blackout on July 13 plunged parts of Manhattan into darkness, trapping people in elevators and subway trains, prompting Broadway shows to cancel and forcing restaurants to toss out food; a second blackout on July 21 left more than 50,000 customers in Brooklyn, Queens and Westchester County with no electricity during an extreme heat wave.

Con Ed should have stepped up and explained what happened as well as apologized after both blackouts, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told the company at the hearing. 

“A power outage in this city translates to complete and utter chaos,” Johnson said. “If I were you, I would be saying, ‘I am so effing sorry for what happened. This is embarrassing. This is terrible. We know that there are people in nursing homes, and on ventilators, and people who don’t have air conditioning, and businesses that are losing money, and we are sorry.”

Before the second blackout, Con Ed President Tim Cawley reassured New Yorkers the company was “ready for what the heat will bring,” Johnson recalled.

“In retrospect, this was clearly a mischaracterization of the situation," Johnson said. "Can you explain why he mischaracterized the situation?”

Two Con Ed officials at the hearing — David DeSanti, vice president of Brooklyn and Queens electric operations, and Kyle Kimball, vice president of government, regional and community affairs — took issue with the speaker’s descriptions. 

“When someone says, ‘We are prepared,’ it means … based on the information we have, we have done what we need to do to get ready," Kimball said. "It doesn’t mean that the system is foolproof."

“Emergencies are going to happen on electrical systems when they run at peak. It happens in New York City and every other major city,” DeSanti added.

During his testimony, DeSanti maintained the second blackout happened despite the corporation’s preparations. Con Ed’s system “performed well” up until the afternoon of July 21 amid high power demand due to the weekend’s high temperatures, he said.

But after several feeder cables serving southeast Brooklyn failed by early Sunday evening, Con Ed “preemptively interrupted service to 30,000 customers” in Brooklyn neighborhoods including Canarsie, Flatlands and Mill Basin, DeSanti said.

The shutdown was the right choice because “an analysis … made clear that if we took no action, additional equipment was going to fail,” DeSanti, said. Customers whose service was cut would have lost power anyway, he added.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, meanwhile, questioned why Con Ed hadn’t alerted customers they would be losing power before shutting down equipment so vulnerable New Yorkers would have time to prepare.

DeSanti said Con Edison didn’t have time to let customers know about the power outage because “the decision and the actual shutdown took place within minutes of each other.”

“I assure you that we fully appreciate the impact of shutting off power to customers,” DeSanti said, adding that the company “did not take this decision lightly.”

Johnson took issue with Con Edison using “technical gobbledygook” to explain what had gone wrong.

“You need someone new to advise you on how to communicate with the public, because it is inadequate and laughable at this point,” Johnson said.

Kimball said Con Edison is working to improve its communication with customers and elected officials.

When asked, Kimball said Con Edison is currently accepting reimbursement applications from businesses in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s West Side that lost money due to the blackouts, though DeSanti noted there are limits on how much they may receive. 

DeSanti also confirmed that the business is seeking a rate increase despite criticism of its service. He maintained the money was needed to invest in reliable service for customers, address “needed expansion” and bring new customers online as the city grows.

“This isn’t money we’re asking for to put in our pocket,” DeSanti said. “We’re asking to invest in the system and to secure reliability and needed growth.”

Maya Rajamani