By Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It has become one of the biggest sources of tension between residents and the authorities in the worst-hit areas of New York City after Superstorm Sandy: damaged electrical systems in homes and - making matters worse - not enough electricians to fix them.
For while the utilities may have now reconnected power to almost all streets in New York City they have been unable to turn on the electricity to 30,000 to 40,000 homes because of fears that bad electrical wiring could cause fires. And many residents fear they could be in the cold and dark for weeks or even months because they can't find or afford an electrician.
Recognizing these fears, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last Friday announced a "Rapid Repairs" program set up jointly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide electricians and other contractors free of charge to those who have been hit badly, with repairs paid for by FEMA grants. He said that would be faster than getting individual home owners to all scout around for their own electricians.
The only problem is the program looks likely to take some time to get underway - and city regulations governing who can do electrical work in the city seem to be part of the problem. On Monday, Bloomberg said that "it's too early to estimate how long this will take," adding: "We'll see as we get going. If everyone depends on their own electrician, it would take a very long time."
And a spokeswoman for Bloomberg on Tuesday said sign up for the program had only just begun and the city did not yet have firm numbers on how many homeowners had applied.
Tishman Construction, which is running the program for the city, said it would begin assembling at least 100 teams of contractors on Thursday.
A labor union official who is working with city officials on the Rapid Repairs program said there are not enough electricians in New York City available to efficiently handle all the inspections and repairs required to get power back on for tens of thousands of city residents.
The official, who requested anonymity, said New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering a plan to expand the program to allow any New York State-licensed electricians to participate, rather than just city-licensed contractors.
State Senator Martin Golden said he is very concerned about the short supply of both licensed electricians and equipment. He said he had circuit breakers flown in overnight from California for the Gerritsen Beach community in Brooklyn, which has about 1,400 badly damaged homes. He said the area needed at least 50 teams of contractors to make an impact on the electrical problems given one team could probably only work through four homes in a day.
CORRODED BY SALT WATER
The main power company in the city, Consolidated Edison, requires that houses that currently aren't getting electricity because of storm damage be visited by an electrician licensed to do work in New York City, who will sign a form saying whether it is ready to receive power. This is not a job that out-of-state volunteers, or even electricians from other parts of the state, are allowed to do without permission from the authorities.
While the utility companies supply power, the homeowner is responsible for wiring and outlet boxes inside their own homes that may have been damaged by salt water flooding. "We apologize for any delay getting power back, but the customer has to get their equipment repaired," said Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert on Monday.
The concern is about fire, said licensed electrician Alan Riback, owner of Electrical Security Corp, who joined ConEd's efforts on Sunday as a paid consultant. "It's a bomb waiting to go off," he said, if you run power through equipment corroded by salt water.
Homeowners in New York City can sign up for the Bloomberg program by calling 311 and providing the identification numbers many of them would already have received from FEMA.
Residents have been confused, and some angry, about what needed to be done to get the power turned back on.
Homeowners in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, which still has thousands of homes without power, have been paying a large range of prices for electrical work in recent days.
Home improvement expert Tom Kraeutler, host of the syndicated radio program The Money Pit, said $150 was a good ballpark estimate of a sign-off visit. A licensed electrician then could just de-energize any lines to basements or garages that got flooded, and leave restoration work for later, "when cooler heads prevail," Kraeutler said. Then the rest of the house could receive power.
But many residents desperate to get their power back after two weeks are paying much more than that - possibly getting repairs they don't need right now - and the power was still not back on yet.
David McDowell, 52, said he spent $3,000 to get a licensed electrician to install new outlets in his basement and sign off on his house, which had 71 inches of floodwater in it after the storm.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance.; Editing by Martin Howell and Eric Walsh)