Power Outage From Sandy One Of Biggest Ever In U.S.

Sandy left 7 million customers without power across the East Coast, leaving many wondering what it will take to get the lights back on.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Sandy knocked out electricity for more Americans than any other storm in recent decades. More than eight million customers lost power across 17 eastern states and the District of Columbia. New Jersey and New York state were hardest hit, but utilities from North Carolina to Maine are working to turn the lights back on. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this report on restoration efforts.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Sandy hit with two fists: one was wind, gusts up to 90 miles an hour that knocked trees over onto power lines. The other was flooding, especially storm surge onto low-lying coastal areas. It inundated power stations and underground equipment. The worst hit is New Jersey, with over two-and-a-half million customers without power today. New York state, over two million, Pennsylvania, over one million. And those numbers could go up as the storm moves west.

Sarah Banda is with the New York utility Consolidated Edison. She says where downed trees are the cause, it's often hard to get crews out.

SARAH BANDA: One of the challenges that we're having, for example, in Westchester County is that more than 180 roads are closed because of downed trees. In Staten Island, we have more than 200 wires that are down.

JOYCE: New York City, however, didn't have a tree problem. Instead, it was flooding.

BANDA: You go to Manhattan and its underground equipments where we need to make sure that that equipment is dry before it's energized.

JOYCE: Much of New York City's infrastructure, from subway tunnels to electrical distribution lines, lies under the streets exactly where the water goes. Con Ed says power could be restored to homes and businesses in the city in four days. But where customers are served by overhead lines, it could take at least a week.

New Jersey, with the biggest power outage, had two substations that flooded. A substation is a hub that distributes electricity through power lines like spokes on a wheel. When those substations flooded, almost half a million customers lost power.

How fast people get power depends in part on how quickly utilities can track down where the problems are. Massoud Amin with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers says some are better than others.

MASSOUD AMIN: Unfortunately, Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland, New York are the oldest infrastructure.

JOYCE: Smart meters and other new technology, the so-called smart grid, can communicate outages back to utilities right away. But these technologies are not widespread yet. Boots on the ground are, however. Amin says the delays would be worse if utilities had not been prepared. Right now, they report thousands of workers on the job, from as far away as California, Washington state and Canada. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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