Report on RG&E windstorm response could mean millions in penalties

Five people died as a result of the windstorm that hit western New York, according to the Monroe County Health Department. This utility pole snapped in Irondequoit last week. (WHAM photo)

Rochester/Albany, N.Y. (WHAM) - A report released Thursday called RG&E and NYSEG's response to the March windstorm "poor" - and suggested the companies' owners could face millions of dollars in penalties.

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) released its report Thursday, focusing on the response by both utility companies to the March windstorm that slammed the Rochester and western New York areas.

The PSC said a poor storm restoration response violated the companies’ own emergency response plan. In 2013, utility companies were directed to submit new emergency plans on how they respond to public emergencies following Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The investigation found both RG&E and NYSEG performed well in some areas of responding to the storm, but added there were several areas where the companies did not follow their own guidelines. NYSEG had four violations; RG&E has eight violations.

RELATED: Couple in Rochester frustrated over lack of RG&E response during outages

During the storm, which hit on March 8-9, peak outages were reported at 123,000 for RG&E and 48,000 for NYSEG. Complete restoration took until March 13 for NYSEG and March 15 for RG&E.

Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a PSC investigation into the utility companies' responses on March 11. Public hearings were held on April 12 and 13 for people to state their grievances.

“It is critically important that utilities adhere to our rules and regulations, even more so when the safety of New Yorkers is at stake,” said Commission Chair John B. Rhodes. “Given the findings, the Commission will now consider financial penalties on the companies for their apparent failure to follow Commission-approved emergency response plans.”

The violations detailed in the report include:

  • Call Center: Staffing at the RG&E call center was not at the level laid out in its emergency response plan
  • Critical Restorations: No priority list of critical facilities impacted was created to determine restoration priorities
  • Damage Assessment: The process for damage assessment did not start as early as it should have
  • Downed Wires: Neither company fully secured downed wires as reported by town and villages within 36 hours as required, which put public safety at risk
  • Life Support: Neither agency properly coordinated communications with customers who are on life-support equipment. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed.
  • Phone Alerts: RG&E's automated voice messaging services was not updated to reflect storm conditions
  • Restoration: The public was not informed about restoration times, creating customer uncertainty

Rose Riekstins in Irondequoit lost power for four days. "It got very cold in here… We stayed here the first two nights, but it was just too cold, especially for my husband," said Riekstins. She isn't surprised by the proposed penalties the pwoer companies face.

"It would seem RG&E would have a better plan, because anything can happen in the winter here," said Riekskins. "So hopefully they will learn from this experience that something has to be done."

About a mile away, William Cole is hopeful the report can change the way power companies prepare for bad weather.

"You don't have TV, you don't have Internet, you don't have phone, it just gets old," said Cole. "I think they should've learned their lesson back in 1991."

Cole thinks, among other possible solutions, adding more staff is a start.

Both NYSEG and RG&E now have 30 days to make their case to the PSC as to why penalties should not be levied against them, and how their storm response plans will not be repeated in the future.

The decision can be found under the Commission Documents section here and searching for Case Number 17-E-0594.

AVANGRID released a statement Thursday in response to the report:

NYSEG and RG&E are reviewing the findings from the New York State Public Service Commission’s investigation into NYSEG and RG&E’s preparation for and response to the March 2017 windstorm and will respond as directed. The unprecedented weather that resulted in the March windstorm posed great challenges to our communities, employees, contractors, assisting utilities, and municipal partners who all worked tirelessly to safely restore power to all customers. NYSEG and RG&E’s priorities during any storm are the restoration of service to our customers and the safety of our communities, customers, employees and contractors.
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