What NYC needs to learn from the post-Isaias blackouts

One week after the fast-moving Tropical Storm Isaias blew through the city, thousands of New Yorkers still had no power. Food in their refrigerators spoiled. They couldn’t work from home without the internet. Their houses and cars were crushed by fallen trees.

And their lives were endangered by live wires on the ground.

How could the city have failed so miserably in its cleanup and relief efforts?

After I visited the hardest-hit areas of my district, it became clear that most of the destruction was caused by a chain reaction due to years of neglect and mismanagement.

The first link in the chain is the street tree, a vital piece of New York’s limited greenery. Nearly every single tree I saw was very old and rotten. Their cores were completely hollowed out; carpenter ants crawled inside.

These weakened trees, some easily 100 years old, snapped like toothpicks in Isaias’ high winds — and would have snapped sooner or later even in a mild storm.

Worse, residents living nearby say they’ve reported the problem to 311 numerous times. But when the Parks Department inspects the trees, it rarely takes action.

And when 1 million trees were planted between 2007 and 2015 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Million Tree Initiative, the maintenance of new and old street trees actually dropped.

This year, the historically underfunded Parks Department saw its budget slashed by nearly $85 million, and its tree and sidewalk maintenance will undoubtedly continue to suffer. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s threats to lay off 22,000 employees will only make matters worse, he himself admitted this week.

Next, these toppling trees took down overhead power lines and utility poles, cutting power and creating a logistical back-and-forth between the Parks Department and utility companies.

But the utility poles, like the trees, are decades old in some cases, visibly crumbling, and similarly fell. The spaghetti-like mess of tangled wires and tree branches on sidewalks and streets proved too overwhelming to clean up quickly.

Yet when the cleanup is complete, the poles are likely to have even more tangled wires, fueling more outages experienced in neighborhoods that still rely on this 19th-century technology.

These overhead power lines are the main reason why Queens experienced the most power outages in the city; Manhattan saw almost no outages because its power lines are buried underground.

Con Edison estimates the cost of modernizing infrastructure in Queens and moving power lines underground across the city at $1 mill­ion per mile.

But that speaks to the control the utility company has over the city: It’s a monopoly and can virtually say what it wants.

Notably, many customers received no feedback from the utility post-Isaias. They were told their power would return by Sunday at 11 p.m., five days after the storm. Yet even that lengthy deadline was missed by at least two days. If it weren’t for the National Guard, the tree removal companies and electrical contractors that came from as far away as Texas, Con Ed would probably still be giving us deadlines that it can’t meet.

And all of this, eight years after Hurricane Sandy. It feels like our city learned nothing. As I told a constituent while looking at a hollowed-out tree that fell in front of her home, this is the poster child of the city’s failures.

Our residents pay far too much in taxes and utility bills to worry that something less than a hurricane can knock them off the grid for a week.

It’s time for the city, state and Public Service Commission to get together and compel Con Edison and the Parks Department to develop a master plan for the future of our infrastructure.

Con Edison needs to commit to burying a certain number of miles of wire per year, starting with communities like mine that have the most outdated utility poles and experience regular outages.

Whether it’s Sandy or inadequate Parks funding, we must stop repeating the mistakes of our past —and plan for the future.

Robert Holden represents the 30th District, covering parts of Queens, in the City Council.

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