Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When You Leave Gaps in Information...

This cherry-picker utility truck is typical of the ones that have swept across Long Island in recent days.  We ride alongside them on our streets, pass clusters of them, watch strings of them rumble past.  When they don't stop at your house, and your house still has no power, then you feel doubly powerless.

A friend of mine lives on a street that was still dark twelve days after Sandy.  She and her neighbors noticed a truck parked at their corner, waited while its crew ate at the McDonald's there, then swarmed them to ask when someone was going to clear the one tree that had fallen on their wires.  The out of state crew leader, a shame-faced young man with a Midwestern accent, said he didn't know when they would get service.  My friend's neighbor said he would pay them for the favor.  The crew chief refused.  The team got back on their truck, which had Kansas license plates, and headed for another assignment.

 Reading the license plates and company logos on these trucks is a lesson in geography. I've personally spotted equipment from Ohio, Illinois, and Alabama.  Others swoosh by too fast for me to read the full addresses or phone numbers on their side panels, but the digits of exotically unfamiliar area codes jump out at me:  416, or 312.   The truck in this photo, which I saw this morning, wins the prize for being furthest from home (at least that I have seen).  It sports an Abbotsford, BC address.  That's a town in Canada, folks, three time zones away from here.  That truck's home base is 75 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and 3,000 miles from the spot where I passed it on Hempstead Turnpike.

It's unbelievable how many convoys have come from all over North America to help reconnect the electrical dots of our local power delivery system which the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and its operations contractor National Grid could not fix on their own.  These utility trucks, and their guys in hard hats, have come in from every direction.  Some were flown in by military cargo plane. They are the king's horses and the king's men, called in to put back together an aging Humpty Dumpty of a system that sat on its windswept wall for one hurricane too many.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced yesterday that he will open an investigation to determine why LIPA's storm recovery efforts have failed so miserably.  It has escaped no one's attention that, even bulked up with thousands of reinforcements, restoration has lagged far past the "week to ten days" that was promised.

And that's where the topic of remarkable messaging comes in. Throughout this disaster, LIPA's messaging to its customers has been distinctly unremarkable. The acting Chief Executive Officer of LIPA, Michael Hervey, allowed his company to set public expectations by quoting a timeframe for project completion --  then he pulled back and did very little further communication as the days and weeks wore on.  In fact, the company decided to limit its press releases, stay silent in the face of escalating criticism, and not even return phone calls from civic leaders.

This is not an unusual response pattern when leaders are faced with a crisis.  If you are the kind of boss who has been relying mainly on blarney and bluster to manage situations, you're caught empty-handed when a situation surpasses your power to talk past the problem.  In a continuing and overwhelmingly bad circumstance, you find that your initial "Calm down, everyone" speech doesn't go the distance.  As the crisis unfolds, your usual empty-suit messaging tricks don't apply, so you tend to shut down the messaging entirely.  But that response pattern  paves the way for a different disaster of the public relations kind.

I have a motto that relates to this.  It goes:

If you leave gaps in information, 
people tend to fill those gaps with their own information, 
and it's usually negative.  

If the suits at LIPA had kept ahead of the communications process, stayed in constant contact with the media and supplied more frequent updates, I believe that they would not be the subject of such suspicion and animosity now.  As it is, news reporters are teasing out stories from "insider sources" about poor project management, antiquated systems, inadequate supply reserves, and ineffective leadership -- but I wonder if the real central story here isn't one of bad messaging.  

Not everyone realizes that LIPA's messaging problems go back at least thirty years to the time when our current governor Andrew Cuomo's father Mario was the governor of New York. Accusations of corruption, paybacks and cronyism go back at least that far.  It may have taken a storm to blow down the wires, but the lines of communication started fraying a long time before Sandy picked up steam on October 29th, 2012.

Someone should write a novel about Long Island's doomed Shoreham nuclear power plant that was closed in 1983 before it ever pumped a single kilowatt because an evacuation plan was never factored into its operation.  Some one should tell the whole story about the scandals and lack of government oversight that forced Long Islanders to endure huge rate hikes to pay for the Shoreham plant debacle. It's the stuff of a Nelson DeMille potboiler (Mr. deMille is a Long Island-based author who has written other novels based on local news stories).  But as far as I know, neither Mr. DeMille or any other author has had the courage to go near the Shoreham story.  In the absence of a work of literary drama, you can read about it in this New York Times article.

As it is, the true story about the failure of a local utility's campaign to nuclearize an island with a population density second only to Japan, and the way it set back the economic growth of a whole region, remains buried under decades of political obfuscation.  But the root of the story again involves gaps in communication.

In fact, one could make a pretty convincing argument that, had LIPA's predecessors been more open in their communications throughout the Shoreham plant's bidding process, planning and early construction, the whole anti-nuclear debacle of the early 1980's could have been stopped.  The powers that be, including then-governor Mario Cuomo (again, for emphasis, the father of our current New York governor), might have been persuaded to abandon the Shoreham project before millions were spent to bring it to near-completion.  If only the officers of LIPA's predecessor Lilco had had a better dialogue with the public, then perhaps the present utility would not be saddled with so much debt servicing that precious little funds have remained available for the infrastructure improvements and maintenance that would have blunted Sandy's impact.  

Alternatively, if those early-80's power plant developers could have produced -- and communicated -- creditable evidence that the Shoreham plant was goof-proof and evacuation of the Island's East End would never be necessary, perhaps its indigenous suburbanites who had nightmares of nuclear contamination would have been mollified. Then the protests that I remember so vividly -- parades of picketers camping out at the gates of Shoreham construction sites -- would not have occurred.  LIPA might have become a utopian utility characterized by cheap nuclear energy, low electric bills, and a picturesque waft of cooling tower vapor on a North Shore hill.

Then again, if Shoreham had opened as planned, and its beachfront nuclear facility had been in operation at the time of Sandy, would the 13-foot storm surge have caused the Long Island Sound to swamp it in the same way the Japanese tsunami flooded the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant last year?  Would Sandy have caused a dreaded nuclear contamination catastrophe on top of all of its other devastation?  

No answers are to be found in the airbrushed annals of Long Island history, and none are likely to be forthcoming in the litigation, blame and wrangling that's intensifying here and now in 2012.  LIPA CEO Michael Hervey has said he will resign.  Officials, including our present Governor Cuomo, are appointing task forces and promising to hold people accountable -- as soon as they figure out which people.  Questions will be asked!  Inquiries will inquire!  Indignation will be expressed!

And after the headlines die down, local residents like me will open up our LIPA bills and gasp.  You know all those out-of-town trucks?  Someone will be paying them for the favor.

No one is communicating whether the cost of Long Island electricity, already high compared to most of America, will go yet higher after all the lines are repaired and all the substations are working again.  So I'm filling in that gap in information with my own negative information:

Long Islanders like me have no idea how much more we'll be paying for energy by this time next year.  But it will make our high energy bills of today look like bargains.  

I wonder how affordable the electric bills are in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  Maybe it's time to move.

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