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Utilities Ready for Power Outages as Hurricane Sandy Barrels Ashore

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A parking lot lies flooded at Metro-North Rail's Beacon, New York station Monday. (Photograph by New York Metropolitan Transit Authority/Flickr)

Residents and utilities along the East Coast are bracing for the worst of Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to bring winds up to 90 mph along with heavy rains when it makes landfall Monday.

Billed as “Frankenstorm” because of the tropical hurricane’s collision with a cold front from the west, a full moon, and the week of Halloween to boot, Hurricane Sandy has killed at least 65 people in the Caribbean and prompted a wave of public transit shutdowns and supermarket sprees for provisions as it approached the U.S. East Coast. Residents from North Carolina up to New York prepared to cope without electricity for at least a couple of days, if not a week or more, as happened during the derecho thunderstorm system that walloped this region over the summer and left 4.3 million without power.

As of noon Monday, flooding was prevalent in Sandy’s vicinity, but power outages were limited: at least 15,000 people along the mid-Atlantic region were without power, with the largest number of outages in New York and Virginia. As the storm moves west and north as forecast, utilities are prepared for the situation to get worse.

“Now it’s just a matter of waiting until the storm makes its impact,” said Le-Ha Anderson of Dominion Power, which serves 2.5 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina and had about 5,500 customers without power midday Monday. “If it does impact us at the force we’re hearing from meteorologists, we know that we’re going to have extended outages and multiple outages, and we are ready for that.”

Utilities have mobilized crews and have been watching for early damage. Con Edison, which serves 3.3 million customers in New York, has been “prepared for several days leading up to this,” said Con Ed spokesperson Sara Banda. “We have people spread out at the different areas that may be impacted by flooding so that they can keep a close eye on underground electrical equipment.” Banda said that if water rose, Con Ed would shut down underground electrical equipment to prevent damage and shorten outage times. The company had 4,200 customers without electricity at midday, with the largest numbers being in the New York City borough of Queens and in Westchester County.

Utilities will have to cope with Sandy’s double-barreled assault of flooding, which can damage underground electrical systems particularly in cities, and the wind and rain that can bring down trees and hit exposed, overhead power lines. Major utilities in the region were publicizing their preparation efforts online (see Dominion, Con Ed, PSG&E in New Jersey, PECO in Pennsylvania and PEPCO in the Washington, D.C. area) noting that they had mobilized their own personnel at maximum capacity and were also marshaling resources from neighboring utilities.

Preparations aside, Dominion Power’s Anderson warned that customers should still expect to see extended outages. “Given the nature of the storm, with sustained winds and saturated ground, we know we’re going to have to rebuild portions of our facilities,” she said. She also warned that repairs to damaged lines would not necessarily happen immediately, given the high winds forecast. “We may need to hold crews back until it’s safe,” she said. (See “Pictures: World’s Worst Power Outages“)

John Miksad, senior vice president of electrical operations at Con Ed, echoed Anderson’s warnings about extended outages and recommended that customers keep phones charged, set refrigerators and freezers at the highest setting, and collect water in pots and/or bathtubs. He also urged people to stay away from downed power lines, noting that those lines may be concealed by pooled water or downed trees.

“We would ask our customers to keep their safety first and foremost on their minds, as it is on our minds,” Miksad said during a news briefing.

How prepared are you for an extended power outage? What measures have you taken? And what are you most prepared to do without? Weigh in below.