Long Island Power's problems a window into communications and disaster recovery

What's behind all the anger?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called LIPA (Long Island Power Authority "beyond repair." News reports are filled with stories about LIPA customers expressing their anger at the failures of the state-owned agency. And COO Michael Hervey has resigned in disgrace. 

I'm not in any position to evaluate LIPA's performance, or that of any of the utilities, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With 8.5 million power outages in 21 states, their task has been herculean. And, what many who are still without power may have a hard time swallowing, according to this Wall Street Journal story, the utilities have done a remarkably good job of restoring power.Much better in fact, than many other areas experiencing major storm damage.

But the noise coming from politicians, the press and the angry customers provides some invaluable lessons for everyone in emergency management, and particularly utility providers.

1. Someone has to take the heat. Doesn't work in this day and age to simply blame God for a horrible storm. It's clear in any major event that our political, media and social media culture requires that the outrage we feel being victimized in an event like this needs to find a focus. It's quite clear that LIPA is the black hat of Sandy, as "Brownie," Bush and FEMA were the black hats of Katrina, and Tony Hayward and BP the black hats of the gulf spill. So, think about it. If there's a big disaster that you are involved in, someone is going to end up wearing the black hats. Career's will end ignominiously. Blame will be laid. Fault will be found. Sorry about that, it's our world.

2. Politician's instinct is to avoid heat by heaping outrage on others. This process is nothing new. Where there is citizen frustration a politician is going to be attracted like a manure fly to, well, you know what. They all see in a disaster the opportunity to be the white knight, but there is also great risk in having the black hat put on them. So the blame game is played very quickly and efficiently. We saw it in Katrina where local and state officials (who had responsibility for the response) ducked it by blaming Bush and FEMA (which did not have responsibility for the response, despite what the media said). I saw it first hand in the gulf spill where the mechanism of response communication was grabbed from Command and turned into a mighty weapon to heap outrage on BP while inoculating the president against growing frustration. Now we see it in the words and actions of Cuomo and Bloomberg and local mayors. This is a great worry to me working in emergency communications, because the ability of local responders to communicate directly with the public is often managed by the elected officials. And they have the power to then deflect blame and place it on the responders. Who holds the mike, holds the power.

3. Effective response is more and more about effective communication. Why are people on Long Island unhappy? Bad communication. Sure, they'd like their power on. More than that, they want the truth about when their power is coming on. What is the focus of complaint about LIPA? Poor communication with customers. A “complete breakdown in communications” between the Long Island Power Authority and tens of thousands of its powerless customers was the agency’s biggest post-Sandy failure, a member of the Board of Trustees told The Insider." Governor Cuomo is forming a commission to investigate the failures, but has already pronounced a death sentence on the agency started by his dad. 

This situation is not that unlike that faced by several utilities in Southern California after the big windstorm of Nover 30, 2011. State legislative inquiries, public hearings, lots of media focus on blame--and most of it came down to failures to communicate effectively about outage status and restoration times. 

The Wall Street Journal article that basically said the utilities were performing well also brought home the priority of communications: 

"A common complaint from residents throughout the region: The lack of accurate communication about when power would be restored.

Redpath, who is served by Jersey Central Power & Light, said he understands that the restoration job was enormous and would have understood if it took utilities three or four weeks to restore power. But for an entire week he was told almost daily that power would be restored the next day. He said he just happened to discover the power had finally been restored when he noticed the lights were on his neighbor's porch while driving by."

There is such a huge lesson for emergency communicators here, I hope it is not missed. Performance is important, yes it is. But ultimately, it is communication about that performance that is going to determine the future of your agency. No one would be happy to hear that it will take three weeks to restore power. But their unhappiness with that is nothing compared to the outrage they feel if they hear nothing, or perhaps worse, hear that it will be tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

I hope every utility operator in the nation is paying attention. What is at stake is nothing less than becoming the next LIPA and facing an agency death sentence.