Power Outage Leaves Bed-Stuy Block in the Twilight Zone

Thursday, July 08, 2010

New York's bulk power grid has been holding up despite the heat wave. But thousands of residents have gone without power for short periods of time in locations throughout the five boroughs. That’s what happened to Spencer Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at about 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

The outage left 158 people living between DeKalb Avenue and Willoughby Street without air conditioning, fans, working refrigerators, television--even the ability to charge their cell phones.

“What am I going to do with all the food that's getting mixed up--messed up in my refrigerator, you know what I mean?” said Myra White-Roach, who picked up four bags of ice at the deli around the corner to keep her meat cold. “It's sort of like Twilight Zone where that one block is blocked out and no other place. What's up with that?”

That block of Spencer Street is a quiet residential block occupied largely by two or three story working-class row houses, some of them brownstones, others covered in vinyl siding.

Four modern buildings, of four to eight stories in height, have gone up since the residential real estate boom reached these parts about seven years ago. A Con Edison spokesman, Chris Olert, says the cause of the outage won't be known until the cables are analyzed. But he doubts it's because of new development. He says the utility regularly upgrades its grid when new buildings get built.

DeeJay Houston is a hair stylist, and lives in one of the new buildings. Electricity even powers the hot water heater, which means he had to take a cold shower--though given the heat, that wasn’t so bad.

“You get spoiled,” he said while out walking his dog. “Growing up, we didn't have air conditioning and all of that.”

Olert said that the outage was probably caused by a failure in a secondary cable that connects the street to larger power lines on either end. That can happen when the solder joining the cables melts in the heat—-and under the duress of more air conditioners operating at higher levels—-or when the insulation covering the wires melts and causes a short circuit.

Four Con Ed trucks were stationed along Spencer Street on Wednesday afternoon as crews were working down in the manholes replacing cable. The street was closed to traffic.

As the afternoon wore on, a breeze picked up and the sun set enough to put Mae Evans's stoop in the shade. She came out to sit on it with her grown son, Marvin, and grandson, Edward Gadson.

“The house is steaming,” she said, while mopping her brow with a wet washcloth. “It's like a steam room. It's just miserable.”

She says Con Ed should have known there would be problems here, given the extra development, and blames the company for all the groceries she's had to throw out so far.

“Everybody using the AC, fans and stuff,” Evans said. “They knew this all the time. They should have been on the job.”

Con Ed says it has worked diligently to restore service to more than 40,000 residents since the heat wave began. By Friday morning, Spencer Street residents had their power back, though another 1,800 customers elsewhere in the city were without power. The utility also has a program that will repay up to $450 for spoiled food to customers who have suffered from an outage lasting longer than 12 hours.

To learn more about power outage claims, click here.

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