When the power went out about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, Damon Saunders, a managing partner at the LongHorn Steakhouse in Cheektowaga had no other choice but to politely ask customers to leave the restaurant
With a free dinner.
“We couldn’t run the registers,” Saunders said.
The real hardship for Saunders and several other Walden Avenue eateries – including Panera Bread, the Olive Garden and Smokey Bones grill – ensued over the next 46 hours (and counting) as of Friday afternoon as they, and nearly 1,650 New York State Electric & Gas customers in Erie County remained without electricity.
Valuable food product was being stored in refrigerated box cars out in the parking lots.
Overflow food was packaged in containers and waited outside in the 30-degree air on wheeled carts.
Customers came by the dozens, then left.
“I came to meet a friend at Panera for lunch,” said Carly Coppola of Orchard Park. “It’s kind of crazy. I never expected it to be like this.”
Added Sherry Windsor of Cheektowaga, who was also headed to Panera with her friend Cathy Costello: “We’ll go to Ted’s now.”
It wasn’t just the restaurants. Two days after strong winds knocked down trees and power lines across the region, about 370 customers were still in the dark in Lancaster, with nearly 270 in Cheektowaga, according to the utility’s website.
Other communities with more than 100 customers affected late Friday included Clarence, Aurora and West Seneca.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz was not happy with the utility’s response. He said he and his department heads are not getting the help they need from NYSEG to guide the county’s response to the storm. Accurate information on where power was out, and how long it would be out, signals where and when the county should open warming stations, for example.
NYSEG initially told county officials it wouldn’t take more than 24 hours, or 36 at the most, to fully restore power after Wednesday’s wind storm. That estimate proved to be inaccurate.
“They need to be able to provide that information to first responders as much as the public, and we didn’t feel that we were getting that,” said Poloncarz, who pointed out this was not a major storm with hurricane-force winds.
The county executive said this isn’t the first time he’s struggled to get reliable updates from NYSEG. He said the employees in the field work hard, but there’s a disconnect between them and NYSEG managers.
The county doesn’t have similar problems with National Grid, said Poloncarz, who is looking to the Public Service Commission to take action.
“I’d like to hold them accountable. They are a public utility. A community can be shut down if electric service isn’t provided,” Poloncarz said.
The front desk at the Millennium Hotel near the Walden Galleria was staffed Friday. The only light in the hotel lobby came from the corner of the front desk where a bright LED work light was set up. The parking lot was otherwise empty and guests appeared sparse.
A hotel manager declined a reporter’s invitation to talk about the hotel’s predicament.
“No comment, sir,” he said emphatically. “NO comment. Have a good day.”
Power crews were working on Duke Road just off of Walden Avenue throughout the morning and early afternoon re-installing several power poles and stringing heavy electric power lines.
“They said three to four more hours,” Saunders said about noon Friday.
That was probably going to be too late for LongHorn Steakhouse to open for its usual busy Friday evening business, Saunders said. The stock it was able to save, was trucked to freezers at its Orchard Park restaurant or being stored in a large box truck in its otherwise deserted Cheektowaga parking lot.
There wouldn’t be any time to prepare food in time, Saunders said.
“We make all of our stuff from scratch,” he said.
Just five National Grid customers in Buffalo and Newstead were without power Friday. The utilities reported only a handful of customers without power in Niagara County.
NYSEG, a subsidiary of Avangrid Networks, serves 881,000 electric customers across upstate New York, including 151,000 in Erie County.
The company has come under fire before for its response to previous storms, including a major windstorm that swept the state in March 2017.
Customers and elected officials criticized how long NYSEG took to restore power in that case and how much trouble they had in getting up-to-date information from the utility.
A state Public Service Commission investigation into NYSEG’s performance following that storm found the utility didn’t start damage assessments as quickly as it should have, it couldn’t fully secure downed wires within 36 hours after they were reported and it couldn’t provide the public accurate restoration times.
The Public Service Commission and NYSEG are in settlement talks.
The utility said in a statement Friday that it was making significant progress in bringing all of its customers back on line and most of that work was expected to be finished before midnight. Friday. Only scattered pockets of customers were expected to have to wait until 11:45 p.m. Saturday to get power back.
“After a storm, the Companies’ immediate concern is public safety and seek to make effective use of resources,” the company said. “A combined workforce of more than 1,500 have been hard at work addressing over 2,400 downed lines and approximately 100 broken poles statewide.”
That response didn’t sit well with some residents.
“It was so (darn) cold in the house, it was ridiculous,” said Teresa Brucehaber of Orchard Park. “Down to 50 degrees.”
Brucehaber, who lives on New Taylor Road, complained that the same 51 homes in her neighborhood always seem to be the first to lose power.
Meanwhile, fellow NYSEG customers on the other side of her street stay lit. And, Brucehaber said it happens to the same residents at least a half-dozen times every year.
Jill Hewitt of West Seneca was without power for about 31 hours at the Birchwood Square apartment complex where she lives. The lights came back on about 8 p.m. Thursday, just after she packed her things and was ready to spend the night somewhere else.
“It was cold,” Hewitt said. “We were wearing coats and hats in the house.”
Besides having to throw out most of the food in her refrigerator and watch elderly neighbors struggle without lights or heat, Hewitt said the worst part was NYSEG’s communication, or lack thereof, with residents.
“We weren’t getting any answers,” Hewitt said. “They kept referring people to the website but the website kept saying ‘assessing condition’ for 30 of the 31 hours.”
When Hewitt finally got a time for expected restoration, she said the website read “11:45 p.m., Saturday.”
So, she started packing – until the lights came back on.
“I don’t know what the problem was,” she said. “We just weren’t hearing anything.”
News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.