Thousands of Queens residents are still without power one week after Tropical Storm Isaias

Photo by Jacob Kaye

More than 2,000 Con Edison customers in Queens remain in the dark almost one week after Tropical Storm Isaias barreled through New York City, leaving, at its peak, 73,000 customers without power in the borough.

Dealing with the second-largest number of outages in the company’s history, Con Edison announced last week that power would be restored to all customers in the city by Sunday, Aug. 9.

However, by Monday, Aug. 10, about 5,700 customers were without power in Queens, the borough hit hardest by outages, although about half of those without power lost it during separate incidents unrelated to Isaias, Con Edison said.

As residents without power face the dual challenge of trying to work from home without the internet, while also trying to fight off the summer’s heat without electricity to run an air conditioner, elected officials casting blame on the power company have renewed the call to make power a public utility.

Still in the dark

According to the power company, 2,225 customers in Queens remained without power, as of 2 p.m., on Monday. Workers had been assigned to every outage, and the company expects to restore power by Monday night, Con Edison said.

Much of the blame for the storm’s damage has been pushed onto Con Edison, which should have been better prepared for a storm like Isaias, elected officials said.

“In the peak of summer, our elderly are being trapped indoors without A/C and, given the risk presented by COVID-19, they have few safe options for leaving their home to find respite,” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens neighborhoods including Astoria, College Point, Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside. “Other constituents have lost income because they have no internet access and cannot work remotely.”

While 98 percent of those customers throughout the city who lost power have had it restored, Queens remains the borough with the most outages.

The power company said that it tackles power restoration by prioritizing the areas with the most outages.

“We restore power in blocks. The damage that impacts the most customers,” Con Edison President Tim Cawley said during an interview with NY1 Monday morning. “If we clear up two trees and can restore 1,000 customers, we do that, and we work our way down. So early in the storm, the outage numbers drop precipitously because we’re working the largest storm numbers first. At the end, we’re working scattered outages, where there is significant labor with less customers restored. And that’s what we’re on now.”

But acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee said that in this regard, the power company has also failed.

“Unacceptable is an understatement,” Lee said. “For residents, we are grateful to the workers, but patience for Con Ed has rightfully long run dry. The only thing reliable about Con Ed post-Isaias has been its consistent failure to communicate accurately and effectively to its customers and representative officials. Power is essential, and the restoration of power especially after a storm is a race against time for safety, public confidence and the preservation of livelihoods. In this race, ConEd has utterly and spectacularly failed Queens.”

According to Lee, 48 hours after the storm, 41 percent of the customers who lost power in Queens, had yet to have it restored. In the same time frame, only 11 percent of customers who lost power in Brooklyn were still without power.

Many of the outages that remain in the borough are in southeast Queens.

“Southeast Queens deserves better — but sadly the disastrous response from Con Edison and lack of inter-agency coordination is the norm for us,” said Councilman I. Daneek Miller. “Con Edison has consistently failed our community and not provided the critical infrastructure that any community, let alone one disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, deserves.”

Power to the public

Con Edison’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias has renewed the call to make power a public utility. Such a change would take the responsibility to distribute energy out of the hands of private companies, like Con Edison, and put it into the hands of the government.

“With any privately held company, their number one priority is profit,” said Zohran Mamdani, a Democratic Socialist who recently won the Democratic primary for Assembly District 36. “We’re saying that this company is not responsible to New Yorkers; they’re responsible to executives and shareholders. The state is accountable to an entirely different set of individuals.”

The switch to public power isn’t just about ensuring more reliable service for New Yorkers. According to Mamdani, private energy companies’ motivation for profit is at odds with the motivation to create and provide clean, renewable energy.

“We need to rapidly change the landscape for how energy is created and distributed and these companies are not to be trusted to take us into the future,” Mamdani said.

Even elected officials not as far to the left as Mamdani and his Democratic Socialist of America counterparts, have joined the call for a shift to public power.

“[A] shift to Public Power and 100% Renewable Future are [the] only solutions out of this mess,” City Councilman and Democratic nominee for borough president Donovan Richards said on Twitter.

In the eye of the storm

Con Edison’s response and level of preparedness for Tropical Storm Isaias and other storms like it, has come under scrutiny at nearly all levels of government.

The day after the storm, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an investigation into power companies across the state, including Con Edison.

“The reckless disregard by utility companies to adequately plan for Tropical Storm Isaias left tens of thousands of customers in the dark, literally and figuratively. Their performance was unacceptable,” Cuomo said Wednesday, Aug. 5, while declaring a state of emergency to aid in the power restoration effort.

In Queens, Acting Borough President Lee will host elected officials and community board members to discuss Con Edison’s storm response at 11:30 a.m., on Tuesday, Aug. 11 at Borough Hall.

Miller vowed to take the matter up in the City Council and state Senator Joseph Addabbo recently introduced two bills that aim to change the ways utilities are serviced in the state.

One of Addabbo’s bills looks to make utilities, clean air and clean water a civil right. The other would create a task force for the state to study and make recommendations on backup energy in cases where energy providers are unable or unwilling to provide such services.

“In the 21st century, having access to power utilities is a basic necessity that everyone should have the opportunity to have,” Addabbo said. “From the elderly citizens who need electricity for their life-saving machines to the students who need access to the internet for schoolwork, our people deserve to have access to reliable power and utility services.”

Also in the City Council, Councilman Paul Vallone submitted a series of utility provider reforms on Monday.

The bills look to amend the administrative code of the city to require electrical and utility service lines in Queens to be placed underground when a reconstruction project is undertaken by the city, require the Parks Department to publish all interactions with a utility company if it is attempting to alter or remove trees and to streamline the response of city agencies in situations where utilities companies require the city’s assistance.

According to Mamdani, the political will to make a change in energy distribution is strong. The evidence, he said, is in recent election results, in which a slew of DSA candidates, who have been calling for public power long before Tropical Storm Isaias, were elected to office throughout the city.

“You look at our election results and you see a reflection of where the political will is with this,” Mamdani said. “That’s a reflection of where voters are at.”

This story first appeared on our sister publication qns.com.