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Storm surprises utility

10/31/2012

NEW YORK (AP) -- Blame a high tide driven by a full moon, the worst storm surge in nearly 200 years, and the placement of underground electrical equipment in flood-prone areas for the most extensive storm-related power outage in New York City's history.

It's like what happened at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan last year -- without the radiation. At a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan's East Village, a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and expectations, swamped underground electrical equipment, and left about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers without power.

Last year, the surge from Hurricane Irene reached 9.5 feet at the substation. ConEd figured it had that covered.

The utility also figured the infrastructure could handle a repeat of the highest surge on record for the area -- 11 feet during a hurricane in 1821. After all, the substation was designed to withstand a surge of 12.5 feet.

With all the planning, and all the predictions, planning big was not big enough. Superstorm Sandy went bigger -- a surge of 14 feet.

"Nobody predicted it would be that high," said ConEd spokesman Allan Drury.

At one point, nearly 1 million ConEd customers lost electricity in and near the city -- a record number for the utility. And the troubles didn't end as the storm slowly moved off. Con Ed said problems to its high-voltage systems caused by the hurricane forced the utility to cut power to about 160,000 customers in Brooklyn and Staten Island on Tuesday night.

But the signature event came when a surge of water pushed forward by the storm's winds poured over the banks of the East River near the substation on 13th Street.

As water poured into the substation Monday night, the blinding flash of an explosion lit the most famous skyline in the world. A huge section of the city that never sleeps fell into darkness.

It's exactly what a proactive ConEd hoped to avoid by shutting down three similar power networks in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn in advance of the storm surge.

However, the combination of circumstances, notably an extraordinary high tide, pushed massive amounts of water deep into the city. The underground infrastructure was suddenly vulnerable.

As the storm's predicted path zeroed in on New York City, ConEd brought on extra work crews and laid plans to shut down some underground equipment in lower Manhattan and other parts of the city.

By late Monday afternoon, the utility started to notify Manhattan customers south of 36th Street that power might be shut off if underground equipment was flooded with corrosive, destructive seawater. The company gave the same heads-up to some customers in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

By mid-evening, though, conditions had worsened.