As power is slowly being restored in Northwest Queens, the mayor says embattled Con Edison CEO Kevin Burke should not only keep his job, but that he deserves a pat on the back from New Yorkers, much to the surprise of Queens lawmakers.
"I think Kevin Burke deserves a thanks from this city. He's worked as hard as he can every single day since then, as has everybody at Con Ed," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference Monday. "It's easy to go criticize, but once this happened, Con Ed has been doing everything they can to bring it back."
Assemblyman Michael Gianaris and City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. — who believe Burke should be fired — were visibly stunned by the mayor's comments.
Queens lawmakers have blasted Burke at every opportunity since the extent of the blackout became clear last week, and they did not hold back even after Bloomberg’s comments in support of Burke and Con Ed.
"I am shocked and disappointed by the defense of Kevin Burke today. Anybody who has been in Queens over the past few days has seen the suffering, has seen people who are in desperate circumstances," said Councilman Eric Gioia.
The criticism drew an immediate response from the Bloomberg administration. Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler reprimanded the lawmakers in plain view of reporters at City Hall.
Later in the day, mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser issued a statement that reads: “The mayor has made it clear that his focus has been on getting the lights back on and helping the people who need help. If other elected officials don't support that, they shouldn't stand next to him.”
The mayor said Monday morning that about 3,000 homes and businesses were still without power. At one time, an estimated 100,000 residents in Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside and Hunter's Point were without power.
The biggest problem area now is Woodside. There is no timetable as to when power will be fully restored.
While the public expresses its anger with Con Ed, the mayor says that's not where they should be pointing their blame.
"There's no reason to believe that Con Ed caused this deliberately. It was some kind of a combination of natural disasters or a failure in the way the network was designed and they will fix it," he said. "Con Ed has every reason to be open and to make sure that they have fixed the problem. We will be certainly looking at it. I never thought it's a great idea to have anybody investigate themselves but this is their network."
Queens lawmakers disagree.
"Con Edison has misled the public. They've misled the mayor. They've misled the media," said Gioia. "Con Ed has failed to grasp the severity of this situation and Con Ed has yet to put forward a plan that gives us any confidence the lights will go back on and the health and safety of the people of Queens will be ensured."
"Year after year Con Edison screws up, whether it's stray voltage or blackouts in Washington Heights or some other disaster that they've presided over. People yell; people get angry. Everybody hates Con Ed. And what happens? After a few months, they're back to business as usual. Well this time, we have to say, ÎNo more,’" said Gianaris. "Something has to happen to make them realize they have to take action. They cannot stand there and torture New Yorkers like this year after year after year."
Political leaders in Queens have also asked Governor George Pataki to designate Northwest Queens as a disaster area, making residents and businesses eligible for federal funds.
However, in a letter sent Monday, Pataki said any state assistance can only follow the mayor's designation of a local state of emergency. Then, the city must make a formal request for emergency aid.
Moreover, Pataki says the real financial burden of the crisis should "be shouldered by Consolidated Edison, and not the taxpayers." State disaster aid is pooled from taxes.
The governor added that he shares in resident's frustration and disappointment with Con Edison.
Meanwhile, relief agencies like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are continuing to distribute free meals, drinks and ice. For information on the location of the sites, dial 311.
The city is also reminding New Yorkers to check in on sick or elderly neighbors to see if they need anything.
Food spoilage claims can be filed at the city's Special Services Center again today on 32nd Place in Long Island City.
The mayor is asking residents to lay off air conditioners to avoid over-stressing a network that's already stretched thin.
"While the weather is cool today, later in the week's it's predicted to get a little warmer and muggier and when people use air conditioners that stresses networks. This particular network is still fragile," he said.
The cause of the blackout is still unknown. The first status report from Con Ed on the outage is due August 2nd.
Residents who are still in the dark are asked to call Con Edison at 1-800-75-ConEd the city's 311 hotline.
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