With over $30 billion in federal aid now on its way for Hurricane Sandy relief, the New York State Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force on Hurricane Sandy Recovery held a roundtable discussion in Rockland County to speak with local officials, utility companies, and emergency management personnel about the progress and challenges of the ongoing recovery efforts in Rockland and Westchester Counties.
23 officials gathered and participants provided critical input about the challenges they are facing and what steps can be taken to help improve preparedness and response for future storms.
Over 200,000 Rockland County businesses and homes suffered power outages, with nearly 40 percent of Orange and Rockland customers still in the dark one week after the storm. According to reports, Governor Cuomo's office presented financial costs to congressional leaders that showed Rockland County sustaining over $16 million dollars in government response and repair, including $35 million dollars towards schools, and $90 million dollars towards businesses affected.
“We’re looking to find out how do we rebuild and do better,” said Senator Malcolm A. Smith (D-Queens). “The government wants to hear from individual localities. The only way to do this right and be efficient is to reach out to local individuals to give us concepts and ideas on how that $31 billion will be stretched out.” He added that Feb. 4 is when the task force will submit their final report.
One major question asked of the local officials was whether or not there should be privatization of the utility companies. Check back with Patch later for O&R's response
Senator David Carlucci said that Rockland prepared by prepping the flood-prone areas and the areas most affected by Hurricane Irene.
“Areas that got flooded this time, we were not prepared for that,” said Carlucci. “We have an issue with mold.”
“You can never put people back to where they were before the storm, but it’s important to listen to our residents. Our town supervisors and village mayors were efficient on the ground,” said Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski.
“The governor did discuss not only would we provide assistance but also a response to what happened during Irene,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee. “I’m so happy that we’re looking at climate change and addressing that.”
“The first thing we have to get away from is words like ‘unprecedented.’ We’ve heard them for each storm and we can’t use it as an excuse to not get the job done,” said Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack. “I understand the value of these (O&R) calling centers, but they don’t work if they don’t have the right information.” He added that the O&R liaisons the town were given, were simply data collectors and didn’t give out any information. “There needs to be a high level (O&R) official in each town and village that can have an open line of communication (with O&R’s headquarters).” He added the daily conference calls with O&R and the towns and villages were “useless. It becomes a bickering session and when it comes to important questions, like updates on where and when O&R crews will be,” there were no direct answers. “When you have police and highway department people combing the area and can’t find a single (O&R) truck in the first three days, (that is not acceptable). The people in my office were answering hundreds of calls without (being able to give them any answers). I would like to see O&R representatives to help field these calls.” He lastly added that he needed to do more research before letting the state know whether or not there should be privatization of the utility companies.
“The system isn’t good enough. The O&R priority list isn’t good enough,” said Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart. “O&R system only provides for an early warning, a phone call or door knock, letting you know you better do something, but it doesn’t provide a warming center.”
“Jen (Laird-White) was the voice, was where people knew to go to get information and help,” said Tish Dubow, South Nyack Mayor, referring to Laird-White’s daily village hall meetings.
“We had a near crisis with the hospital. The hospital had enough generator power to operate some machinery, but not other machinery. Again, O&R was really responsive. It was the longest the hospital had ever been out,” said Nyack Mayor Jen Laird-White. “We had a woman on a ventilator who was dying and there was no timeline for her for power restoration. O&R was very responsive to her … Nobody wants the power on more than O&R. This was a wonderful, horrible event. Having a field rep at the village hall helped but we would have liked to have them from day one.”
Haverstraw Supervisor Howard Phillips agreed with Gromack saying that the daily 10 a.m. O&R conference calls were “useless. The O&R people we were talking to couldn’t give us the information we needed. If there is no oversight, if we are going to continues to be powerless, if we are going to be treated like we don’t matter, (this isn’t going to work). We need some type of tool to hold them accountable. I don’t want to hear ‘you can just get a generator,’ Not after this storm, not after the fact that we couldn’t’ get gas. They (O&R representatives) said to us ‘if you’re so concerned about Haverstraw, why don’t you call in the National Guard.’ That attitude was arrogant, that attitude says to me ‘you don’t matter.’ I’m not going to take the abuse anymore. Either you do know it (restoration and information on crews) and are not telling us … or you don’t know it and should know it. We were out the entire night of the storm after midnight. We didn’t see anyone from O&R from midnight to 10 a.m I don’t know if privatization is going to work. I’ve seen privatization work and I’ve seen it fail.” He added that O&R trucks need to have GPS in them so that they can be tracked by O&R HQ.
“We have been hit by three massive storms in the last 12 years. This is not the end of it,” said Stony Point Councilman Jim McDonnell. “We knew this storm was coming, were you (O&R) prepared? The towns say you were not. Privatization? I think they need to sit down, re-examine, restudy, but the plan they have in place does not work."