LIPA Style

LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

Long Island came face-to-face with an uncomfortable reality during Hurricane Sandy. Our utility infrastructure is outmoded and unsustainable. Beyond the political posturing and the finger-pointing, the situation remains unchanged from the days prior to Sandy to now.

Blaming the current administration of the Long Island Power Authority for its inability to respond to a storm of this magnitude amounts to nothing more than scapegoating. Newsday’s recent editorial tirades against LIPA, the politicians calling for heads to roll at the authority and the public’s roiling anger are easy and obvious. Fixing the problem is much more complicated and expensive.

In a crisis like this one, everyone becomes an expert. WFAN’s Mike Francesa suspended his coverage of sports and launched into endless harangues against LIPA, which no doubt gave the NY Jets’ hapless management a momentary reprieve. Even my 9-year-old daughter knew the words to WBLI’s parody, “LIPA Style.” Putting aside the histrionics for a moment, it’s clear that we are no closer to a solution than we were three weeks ago, or 30 years ago for that matter.

So let’s boil it down. LIPA is a management company, not a utility company like National Grid. They are responsible for purchasing power, updating technology, tracking outages, communicating with customers and generally maintaining the grid. But even these important responsibilities are ancillary functions to the main purpose behind LIPA: managing debt.

LIPA was formed from the ashes of LILCO and the abandoned Shoreham nuclear plant, an all-too-familiar story to Long Islanders. It was created as an energy management company hybrid that was dead on arrival due to the overwhelming debt that the defunct Shoreham project carried along. Any attempts to chip away at the debt through aggressive power purchase agreements or renewable technology investments amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even though only about half of the outstanding $7 billion in LIPA debt can still be attributed to the albatross that was Shoreham, the total outstanding obligation hasn’t budged because borrowing without increased revenue begets more borrowing.

Still the cries for change at LIPA come from every direction. Why can’t we bury the lines? Because this isn’t Texas. We have neither the land nor the money to start digging new trenches and burying wires. Not to mention there are other things hanging from those poles (ahem, Cablevision), which further complicates the impossible. Why didn’t they upgrade the system like other places? Because it costs money to replace poles and wires that can withstand downed trees and high winds, and money equals rate increases.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be lauded on the one hand for his swift and tireless efforts in the wake of the storm. On the other hand, it must be said that his initial criticisms of LIPA sound somewhat hollow. For 22 months, the standard answer to questions regarding the vacant leadership post at LIPA and the vacant board seats has been: “We’re waiting to hear from the second floor.”

This is government-speak for “It’s up to the governor.” LIPA wasn’t even authorized to fund vacancies in the communications department. So for the governor to criticize LIPA for its lack of leadership and communication during the crisis is disingenuous at best. This doesn’t alter the fact that LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. 

LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

As a result, Michael Hervey has tendered his resignation from LIPA. He’s the fall guy and I get it. But this is not something to cheer. Hervey has three things going for him that all other leaders before him did not: experience, the admiration of his team and an engineering degree. I’m not saying he should remain as head of the authority, but losing him is a setback.

Please don’t mistake me for a LIPA apologist. There is no question LIPA was overwhelmed by the storm and therefore ineffective in its response. Furthermore, its communication with the public was awful. Better communication would have eased tensions in the same way a sign on the Long Island Expressway that tells you how long it will take you to get to the Midtown Tunnel does; it doesn’t make the trip faster, it just manages your expectations in the hopes of reducing road rage. You can bet that if Richie Kessel was still at the helm that everyone would have know what was going on, even if he had to knock on every door. Whether anything else would have been different is anyone’s guess.

With that said, there is a simple and extraordinarily unpopular answer to what ails us: We have no choice but to pay down LIPA’s debt.

We can talk about wind farms and solar arrays on top of parking lots until we’re blue in the face, but nothing will mitigate our financial mess until this debt is eradicated. Either we pay now, or our kids pay later. (Assuming they’re still here.) Any talk of funds to upgrade the system or of nationwide executive searches is meaningless unless and until we get serious about putting Shoreham behind us once and for all.

Any plan moving forward must seek to sunset LIPA altogether by combining federal money and local rate increases to aggressively pay down a significant portion of the debt and sell Long Island’s power infrastructure and remaining debt to a public utility. Anything less is just shouting at the rain.

The Bell is Tolling

A post-Sandy bike ride down the buckled and duneless Ocean Parkway, clued me to the new abnormal. Not only will the ocean have its destructive way but so will its swollen sister waterways.

It’s personal now.  We’re the proverbial canaries in a coal mine, perched down here on a barrier beach.  We’ve been watching sea level rise and beach erosion for some time now.   Sandy just blew the sand dunes between Gilgo and West Gilgo Beach flat out into Ocean Parkway. The Atlantic is now licking the side of the exposed, buckled roadway, giving it a taste of unobstructed ocean surge on to Long Island’s ‘mainland’.  

The surge from Great South Bay left behind hundreds of millions in damages in South Shore communities like Babylon Village where our twins go to school.  Considering that 22mi West down the coast at Breezy Point 110 houses burned down, things could’ve been way worse for us.  “Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” Donne wrote.  “It tolls for thee.”

I’m a sustainability director living unsustainably on a spit of sand between ocean and bay.  Just driving our small, efficient cars to the mainland requires an extra 400 gallons of gas yearly between me and my wife.  That adds almost 15% to our carbon footprint if, as I estimated five years ago, we, like average Long Islanders, emit 13.67t CO2/yr, or double the reported footprint of our neighbors in the city.   

I was born in the city overlooking the East River and grew up with a view of the Hudson.  Like many, I’ve always needed to be by a body of water.  I had lived in cities most of my life, before moving with my young family to the barrier beach where I had summered since I was a kid.  I particularly relish the quiet isolation of the off-season, the big sky that goes on forever offering world-class sunsets behind the Manhattan skyline. 

An environmental purist in Papa Cuomo’s administration proposed banishing all residents from our barrier beaches rather than extend leases a couple of decades back.  Barrier beaches should be for ‘passive recreation’, permitting drive-by viewing only, no parking or beach-going.  A half-dozen years ago a Babylon Town emergency responder made a comparable rumbling when I came across him taking measure of beach depth and littoral drift.  

This encounter inspired “Barrier,” a tale about a 10yr-old, budding naturalist living on a barrier beach who makes the acquaintance of a grumpy environmental engineer and they debate the natural order of things.  Who will replace the grump if no one has been brought up caring about this place, the 10yr-old wonders?  Philosophical barriers break down over time as each comes to learn from the other.  Then, late one summer, a category 3 hurricane compels them to depend on one another.

We just witnessed a variation on this theme as the lean one joined hands with the mean one to reach out to all those devastated by Sandy in Jersey.  “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,” Samuel Johnson reminds us, “it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”  Having slipped the noose this time around, I am left to reassess assumptions I had drawn from decades on the water’s edge.

We now know that 900 mile-wide Sandy is the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history fueled by unprecedented late-season ocean-expanding warmth (+5°F) augmented by elevated levels of atmospheric moisture which was driven into a most unusual left turn by a “3-sigma” blocking high over Greenland following the largest Arctic sea ice melt in human history.   Having seen decades of hurricanes spin up the 45° Jersey coast and head East I didn’t, frankly, buy that one would take a ‘louie’ and head West into New York harbor.  I can be excused for having gotten one part of the puzzle wrong as conditions have changed radically.  

The other part I now know to be misguided is my worst case scenario. In advance of hurricanes, folks always offer shelter on the mainland and once it’s blown through, they’re the ones with  the damage while we escape dry and unscathed.  So I’ve remained, as I did through Sandy, based upon the calculus that I wasn’t going to die, given my house of cinder block walls connected with steel I-beams and cross-hatched with 3”x14” old-cut redwood  beams.

A post-Sandy bike ride down the buckled and duneless Ocean Parkway, clued me to the new abnormal.  Not only will the ocean have its destructive way but so will its swollen sister waterways.  No one in proximity of water is safe.  Look at the Long Island Sound invasion of King’s Point.  Look at the inundation of Hoboken well North of the New York Harbor on the Hudson. 

It was remnants of the old Coast Guard Station Gilgo emerging from the depths of swept sand that presented a most apt epitaph for this new Frankenstorm.  Once a mighty turreted brick castle by the sea, its skeletal foundation evoked Shelley’s lines:

 

“My name is Ozmandius, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A climate activist called out at a Romney rally recently and was booed and drowned out by chants of “USA! USA!”  You think anyone was shouting this chant at Sandy as she bore down on the Jersey Shore?  Deny it, debate it, delude yourselves, but know this from someone who has been ringside at ground zero here on the barrier beach for 55yrs.  The ocean is invading your shores, America, more certainly than any other threat you may choose to distract yourselves with.  Forty some odd years ago, two commercials told us all we need to know: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and “You can pay  now or you can pay later.”

All photos by Dorian Dale. Top photo: Foundation rubble from the old Gilgo Coast Guard Station