2013-07-05 / Front Page

LIPA Comes Under Fire

By Katie McFadden

Long Island Power Authority and National Grid are coming under fire by those that got burned. While residents were warned of a storm surge and flooding before Hurricane Sandy, the last thing they could have imagined was an inferno engulfing parts of the peninsula as water filled their homes. Now 120 homeowners are looking to hold someone accountable and fingers are being pointed at LIPA and National Grid for not flipping the switch before it was too late.

A lawsuit was filed in Queens Supreme Court on Tuesday by local law firm Sullivan & Galleshaw, LLP on behalf of 120 homeowners whose properties burned down during Hurricane Sandy on October 29th, 2012. More than 120 homes were destroyed by fire in Breezy Point, while dozens of other houses and buildings were incinerated in Belle Harbor on Beach 129th and 130th Streets and in Rockaway Park along Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

Attorney Keith Sullivan and the property owners that he’s representing believe LIPA and National Grid should be held accountable after fire marshals from the FDNY confirmed that those fires started when rising seawater came in contact with the electrical systems inside homes. With several feet of seawater on the ground, firefighters were not able to respond appropriately to the blaze, allowing it to spread and continue for several hours.

Sullivan and the homeowners claim that LIPA had a responsibility to turn off the power grid before the storm. “Had LIPA and National Grid acted responsibly in preparing for the storm, my clients would be living in their homes with all of their life’s possessions and these two communities would not look like a war-zone,” Sullivan said in a statement.

He argues that the electric company took precautions in other areas, but ignored Rockaway and Breezy, even though a mandatory evacuation was in place and many residents were not in their homes when the fires sparked.

“Fire Island was de-energized by LIPA and protected from raging fires and industry protocol called for de-energizing the system; however LIPA and National Grid chose to keep dangerous electricity flowing into the Breezy Point and Rockaway Beach communities during the worst storm in history,” Sullivan says. “No one was home in the houses where the fires started. Electricity and salt water is a deadly combination, we would have thought the power companies knew this already.”

Homeowner Kieran Burke, a Breezy Point resident who lost his home to fire, says he “learned at a very young age that water and electricity don’t mix.” He firmly believes that the utility companies are to blame for his house ceasing to exist.

Burke was in his home during parts of the night, including when the water entered and receded from his home. He thought the water would be the worst of his worries, but fire that spread to his home would later burn it to the ground, taking everything he spent his life working for with it.

“The water came and left and I would have repaired it and I’m homeless now, living 40 miles away, paying bills I couldn’t imagine paying and dipping into retirement accounts,” the 41-yearold father of two said.

“Everything we own was literally incinerated. All the things I worked my whole life for and built for my family was taken from me,” Burke said. To add insult to injury, Burke says he was still getting electric bills in April, despite having no home to be powered. Burke had to call the company to let them know that they were taking estimated readings on a house that wasn’t there. He believes the companies are responsible for taking everything away from him and more than 150 other property owners.

“This didn’t have to happen. Flood is a consequence that we face every day living on the peninsula and we’re willing to accept that, but this is something that could have been avoided,” Burke said.

The lawsuit claims that National Grid was also responsible as LIPA paid them a minimum base of $224 million per year to operate and maintain the electrical transmissions, repair the delivery systems and equipment and to handle LIPA’s customer service lines. As part of this agreement, National Grid also had a responsibility to follow an Emergency Plan for disasters such as Sandy.

Sullivan knows that this won’t be an easy case to argue, as he says “the law is designed to favor utility companies,” but as a Rockaway resident who was personally impacted by Sandy, he feels strongly about fighting for his neighbors.

“We all watched those fires rage during the storm and were standing in front of the homes that were reduced to smoldering ash and rubble the next morning trying to make sense of why this was allowed to happen,” Sullivan said. “Electricity is the most dangerous commodity known to man, LIPA and National Grid had a responsibility to act in the safest way possible by turning off the electricity. It is an insult to the word ‘Negligent’ to call their conduct as such. This was a completely preventable travesty.”

Sullivan and Galleshaw have spent several months helping residents on an individual basis pro bono. Several homeowners asked Sullivan to look into the LIPA issue after the storm and after spending several months researching, investigating, hiring consultants and looking into the legal issues involved, they filed the litigation on Tuesday. They are currently representing 95 Breezy Point property owners, including the Breezy Point Co-Op and 27 Rockaway property owners, including William Heeran, owner of the Harbor Light.

The lawsuit doesn’t seek a specific dollar amount but Sullivan says the damages exceeded $80 million and are continuing to increase as homeowners haven’t been able to start rebuilding.

Burke hopes two things come out of the lawsuit; for “people to be made whole again by being compensated for their loss so they can move on and rebuild” and for the utility companies “to be held accountable. This borders on criminality. It’s a blatant disregard for public trust.” He says it isn’t about the money. “This isn’t to make people rich, it’s to make people whole.”

Burke believes the case is in good hands. “Sullivan and Galleshaw are the best men for the job because they’re from the neighborhood and they want to see the neighborhood survive. They’re going to fight for us.”

Sullivan agrees. “We’re going to put blood sweat, tears and time into this case. Someone needs to be an advocate for these homeowners and there’s no one better than myself and my partner to handle it,” he said. “A lot of lawyers are afraid to take on a case of this magnitude, but it’s not even a question on our minds. These homeowners were wronged, their lives were turned upside down and we’re willing to fight for them.”

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