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Thousands Still Without Heat Nine Days After Ice Storm

March 13, 1991

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ Nine days after an ice storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes across western and northern New York, at least 13,000 people were still in the cold and dark Tuesday.

An elderly woman who lived alone and had been without electricity since the March 3 storm died Monday of exposure, the Monroe County medical examiner’s office said.

Daytime temperatures in the Rochester area this week have been in the 20s and 30s. Overnight lows have been in the teens.

Local officials accused Rochester Gas & Electric, which serves most of the people affected by the storm, of significantly underestimating the extent of the damage and the number of homes that lost heat and electricity.

″It’s the confusion of not knowing if it’s going to be one day, two days, or longer,″ County Executive Thomas R. Frey said. ″I think it’s clear they have suffered enough.″

The storm coated trees from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania line with a layer of ice up to an inch thick that sent branches crashing to the ground, along with power lines, utility poles and transformers.

More than 300,000 homes and businesses - 200,000 of them RG&E customers - lost power.

Frey estimated county clean-up costs at $38 million. The storm caused an estimated $185 million in damage to private homes and businesses, he said.

″Did we underestimate the storm in the beginning? Yes, we did,″ said RG&E spokesman Mike Power. ″It was the storm of the century and they don’t come along too often. Did we respond less than aggressively? No, we responded aggressively and we continue to do so.″

″There is no utility anywhere in the world prepared for a storm the size that hit Rochester,″ said spokesman Dick Peck.

RG&E first had said heat and electricity would be restored to most customers by last Saturday. That estimate was pushed to midweek, and the company now says almost all homes should be back on line by Friday.

″I’ve been pushed back and pushed back,″ said Harvey Singer, who lives in suburban Mendon. ″We are not a bunch of happy campers.″

RG&E said it has had to completely rebuild more than 50 percent of its distribution lines.

″We started building that system in the 1930s. Now we’re going to have to rebuild half of it in a week, or two weeks,″ Power said.

Much of the damage to lines leading to individual homes has been far more extensive than the company first realized, and downed branches get in the way, he said.

″You get into a job that you think is going to take two hours and it ends up taking all day,″ Power said. ″Some of the time it’s like cutting through a jungle with a chain saw even to get to the damage.″

By Tuesday, more than 900 repair crews - nine times the company’s normal work force - were working double shifts.

The state Public Service Commission, which is investigating RG&E’s handling of the storm, said the utility apparently failed to realize how much damage the storm had caused for at least two days. Because of that, RG&E didn’t immediately bring in enough outside crews to help remove trees and restore lines, the PSC said.

″We do have a sense the company didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the storm during the first or second day,″ Ron Liberty, deputy director of the PSC’s power division, told the Times-Union of Rochester. ″The question is whether that was a legitimate problem or the company didn’t make a great enough effort to find out the magnitude.″

Power said RG&E would not respond to PSC comments until after service is restored. But he said the utility did immediately try to get as many crews from out of state and other parts of New York as were available.

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