Power outage
Power outages linked to extreme weather events last longer in the city’s majority Black and Latino communities, a new study found. Photo by natsuki on Unsplash

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New York City in 2021, it hit Queens the hardest: 11 of the city’s 13 flooding-related deaths were in the borough. 

The severe flooding also led to other problems in communities like East Elmhurst. Neighbors saw damage to their homes and exposure to high levels of toxic sewage waste and mold. Under these conditions, some neighbors reported worsened chronic health conditions. Other communities also saw longer-lasting power outages — outages that put already vulnerable populations in even more danger. 

Black and Latino neighborhoods often deal with abnormally long power outages, according to a new study. For example, after Ida, certain neighborhoods in the Bronx were left in the dark longer than other communities. Con Edison reported these communities were most impacted by power outages right after the storm: Pelham Gardens, where 67% of the residents are Black and Latino, and Laconia in the Bronx, where that number is 81%.

Researchers say neighborhoods that are considered transit or hospital deserts see outages that are twice as long. Laconia and Pelham Gardens residents, for instance, have few options for nearby health care facilities. 

“We’ve seen, after severe storms in the city like Ida, that Manhattan had its power back within hours, while there were low-income and largely non-white parts of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, where it took days,” said Nina M. Flores, a doctoral student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Flores is the principal author of the study.

Being flood-prone and heat-vulnerable makes power failures more likely. Researchers say POC communities are often located in disaster-prone areas like flood zones. And when they’re overheated, people tend to use their fans or AC units more. This makes it easier for the electrical system to reach its limit. More currents flowing through the grid can strain aging infrastructure and lead to overheating or short circuits. 

Underinvestment in certain communities’ power lines

When certain communities have been underinvested in for a long period of time, their power lines are also affected negatively. Let’s look at parts of Queens and the Bronx. Eastern Queens tends to be more vulnerable to severe storms because its power lines are above ground. Older poles, for instance, are more likely to fall during high winds. 

But the Bronx has mostly underground cables. So why are many Bronx communities also vulnerable to outages?

“You have a lot more dense, less well-maintained older buildings,” said Robert Mieth, assistant professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Engineering, who was not involved with the study. “These areas also make it harder for the utility [companies] to understand what’s going on, and [how much power may be required during peak load hours].”

Mieth says, based on conversations with some utility companies, that their records are often incomplete, inaccurate, or missing.

“This is actually a huge problem for many utilities, that they’re just now starting to gather data on what’s actually there,” he said. 

NYC neighborhoods with the worst power outage issues

The study shows that NYC neighborhoods with the largest total number of power outages driven by severe storms from 2017 to 2020 are all in Queens: Jamaica, Flushing, and Richmond Hill. Other than Eastern Queens, upper Manhattan and the Bronx were also areas most burdened with these kinds of power outages.

How does the grid differ in communities that get prioritized for repairs? 

Some of the prioritized areas have underground networks. These power lines are costlier and harder to repair than the overhead ones in many vulnerable communities. 

Why? Areas with higher building density, like much of Manhattan, have multiple power lines to account for the higher electrical load. So if one fails, the other will still be up. They’re prioritized during outages even though these underground power lines cost more and take longer to repair. 

But making those power lines more resilient to severe weather events isn’t the core reason they’re designed to be underground, says Samrat Acharya, a power systems researcher who was not associated with the study. 

“They made it underground because of the skyscrapers and other situations in Midtown Manhattan,” he said. “Nobody wants power lines moving across their window.”

In neighborhoods with lower building density, the overhead power lines are easier to maintain and repair. But they also are more exposed to the elements. It makes them more prone to be down during a storm. 

“Disadvantaged people or people of color are being harmed through overhead and less repair than … [for instance] Midtown Manhattan,” Acharya said. 

Why do certain communities’ power lines get prioritized over others? After Hurricane Ida, Con Edison published a plan that prioritizes areas with “critical” infrastructure. Photo by Антон Дмитриев

Why do certain communities’ power lines get prioritized over others?

After Hurricane Ida, Con Edison published a plan that prioritizes areas with “critical” infrastructure. Neighborhoods with hospitals, mass transit, police and fire stations, and sewage and water-pumping stations come first for power line repair. Their second priority is areas with the densest population.6

This means communities with the most resources get first dibs on restored power. Meanwhile, healthcare and transit deserts are left hanging after a bad storm. 

New Yorkers who live in these disinvested neighborhoods with critical health conditions at home have to wait at the end of the line to use life-saving medical machines. Many of these devices have backup batteries that only last about eight hours, study authors note. That’s a problem when the longest power outages in NYC neighborhoods lasted an average of 20.2 hours.

Researchers don’t completely disagree with utility companies prioritizing restoring power in areas close to hospitals, schools or the subway. But Flores says taking a black-and-white approach further harms hardest-hit communities.

“On paper, this might look completely neutral, but we also need to think about what regions tend to have more of these community assets,” Flores said. 

“Low-income regions often don’t have many local hospitals,” she said. “So if we are prioritizing those other regions, there is a worry that we are inadvertently prolonging these outages in regions that might be already lacking resources.”

How can power-vulnerable communities prepare?

Flores and her colleagues analyzed hourly weather and power-outage data throughout New York. They also looked at income level, housing and transit access and other metrics for social vulnerability. The study is one of the first to report the community impacts of severe weather-driven outages to this level of detail. 

Flores’ hope is that utility companies will change their guidelines to also include communities with a lot of people who rely on the power grid to keep their medical equipment going. For power system operations experts like Mieth, the entire grid needs to be restructured.

“To accommodate our goals for decarbonisation, not only the electric power grid, but the entire economy in the next 20 to 30 years will lead to a rethinking on how our electricity is produced and generated and distributed,” he said. 

During this climate crisis, severe rainstorms, hurricanes, and heat waves are more likely to occur. The energy transition will make a lot more people reliant on electricity, Flores says. And there are more people with chronic conditions who depend on some kind of electric-powered medical equipment.

In the meantime, power grid issues are slow to change. What vulnerable communities can do now is prepare themselves to face outage issues during this perfect storm of climate change and increasing reliance on electricity-powered devices. 

In the city, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) is one such lifeline, Flores says.  

“I find the WAP program promising because it helps low-income individuals … mitigate energy-related health and safety issues [with] the added benefit of reducing energy burdens,” she said. Less AC may need to be used if cracks and holes are sealed through weatherization to keep air from leaking out. 

Still, the power equity issues start long before the extreme weather incident. 
“It is a cycle — the more hospitals, the more critical infrastructures they have built in wealthier neighborhoods, the faster their emergency response,” Acharya said. “Disadvantaged communities … get less priority. When we talk about equity in power, we’re talking about this.”

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1 Comment

  1. I’m no surprise of the conclusion of that study, but I am impressed of the number of people affected in Queens. Good.

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