Andrew Cuomo Unleashes on Power Companies In Wake Of Hurricane Sandy, But Next Steps Unclear

NEW YORK -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo lashed out on Monday at the utility companies who still have hundreds of thousands of customers without heat and light more than a week after Hurricane Sandy struck.

350,000 New Yorkers were still without power as of Tuesday morning, putting lives in danger as temperatures held below the freezing point at night. That number is down from the 2.1 million customers who had their lights knocked out at the height of the outages, but still far too high for Cuomo.

"The progress is unacceptable," Cuomo said at a press conference. "To say that I am angry, to say that I am frustrated, disappointed, would be the understatement of the decade."

All of the state's utilities who have powerless customers, he suggested -- Con Ed, the Long Island Power Authority, the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG), and Orange & Rockland -- could be in for a rude awakening after cleanup is over.

"I promise the people of this state that they will be held accountable for their lack of performance," he added. "These are not God-given monopolies. I will review all of them."

The outages in Westchester and Nassau counties, he said, are "truly terrible." And Cuomo, a son of Queens, also pointed out that while the glittering lights of Manhattan may have been restored, some in the outer boroughs are still going without.

In the Rockaways, where power is provided by the Long Island Power Authority, a critical substation is now dry, but customers could still wait up to a month for power. In the meantime, they will be left to shiver -- or flee.

That kind of service lag, Cuomo has suggested, treats residents of the outer boroughs and suburbs like second-class citizens.

The restoration plans, he said on Friday, are "great for downtown Manhattan." But, he added, "I grew up in a place called Queens, and there's a place called Brooklyn and there's a place called the Bronx and a place called Staten Island. And they need their power back on."

Cuomo is considering steps from sanctions all the way to yanking the utilities' licenses after a thorough review of their post-Sandy performance. But whether he will go that far -- and whether that would make future outages shorter -- are unanswered questions.

Cuomo ordered a similar review after Hurricane Irene, when several utilities, including the Long Island Power Authority, likewise invoked the wrath of state and local politicians and the derision of customers. In June, the state's Public Service Commission released a review of LIPA's performance during Irene, citing it in particular for a failure to communicate.

That same month the power authority, a non-profit, signed a new contract that shifts day-to-day management away from National Grid and toward New Jersey-based company PSE&G, leading elected officials like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to ask how it would handle emergencies during the ongoing transition period. LIPA declined to comment on the governor's recent remarks.

Other utility companies in question said they were doing the best they could.

"NYSEG agrees with Governor Cuomo’s desire to have electricity service restored quickly. To this end, we have marshaled a team of more than 3,400 company and contract workers to get the job done," said Clayton Ellis, a spokesperson for the upstate utility.

"We appreciate the state’s leadership and assistance in helping us restore power to our customers," said Allan Drury of Con Ed. "This has been a massive and unprecedented restoration process, having power returned to more than 860,000 customers -- well more than four times the amount from Hurricane Irene."

The dramatic step of revoking utilities' licenses would require action from the state Public Service Commission. Even if Cuomo did follow through on his still-tentative threat, new operators would still be faced with similar challenges: namely, a public that demands both low electrical rates and highly reliable service.

Some observers suggested that in order to better weather storms like Sandy, changes must be more systematic than substituting one utility for another.

"If you want to take potshots at Con Ed, fine, maybe that's the nature of politics," said Steven Mitnick, an energy consultant who advised Eliot Spitzer when he was governor of New York. "But let's actually accomplish something with this. If you want Con Ed to pay fines or to put certain costs upon them, put that into the infrastructure so we can lessen the incidence of these kinds of events."

Joy Resmovits contributed reporting.