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September 23, 2019Cart

Business

by Westchester County Business Journal
by WCBJ

Storm outages spark Westchester County businesses into action

The two massive nor’easters that hit Westchester County and region — the first on March 2 and the next on March 7 — and the outages that followed sparked a fiery feud with the utilities that serve the county on one side and their customers and elected officials on the other.

A view of the Peter Pratt’s Inn after the nor’easter hit. Photo via the inn’s Facebook page.

But as fingers were pointed and those without power tried to cope, hotels, restaurants and tree service companies all saw demand for their services surge.

OUT ON A LIMB
The trucks of tree care and landscaping companies have lined streets throughout the county in the days since the first nor’easter hit.

Patrick Laidman, an arborist and district manager in The Care of Trees’ Elmsford office, said the two storms have his crews taking on extra shifts during what’s usually a slow season for the national tree-care service. He said the nor’easters brought the most damage he’s seen to the county’s tree population since Hurricane Sandy in 2011.

The initial storms created about 60 days worth of work for the company, Laidman estimated. The Care of Trees, which also has offices in Mount Vernon and Mount Kisco, brought in extra employees from offices in Pittsburgh to help manage the load.

“There was so much needed in response,” Laidman said. “Getting trees off houses, roadways, off power lines.”

The company works with homeowners, corporate clients and municipalities. Without the storms, he said this month would typically be a slower period for employees to gear up for a busy spring of landscaping and tree maintenance work.

“It’s been a daunting time because the hours we are working, it puts a lot of stress and fatigue on people,” Laidman said. “The phone is ringing and you can’t get to everybody, and we have to take care of clients first.”

NO VACANCY
Hotels, meanwhile, were booked. Families who lost power came seeking refuge, along with workers arriving from out of state to help with the recovery efforts.

Sean Meade, the general manager of Cambria Hotels and Suites in downtown White Plains, said those families arrived at his hotel as it was already at capacity with regular Monday through Wednesday business travelers.

“You have an area that’s running very high occupancy as it is, then you combine that with 30,000 or so power outages and it’s extremely difficult to try to accommodate all the people without power,” said Meade, who is also president of the Westchester Hotel Association. “All the hotels here did the best they could to accommodate.”

The White Plains Cambria has about 130 rooms, and Meade said between 20 and 30 families arrived at the hotel looking for a room following the first storm and power outages. With other hotels facing a similar situation, the competing businesses had to communicate to find who had open space.

“I was getting calls on Saturday from people I haven’t spoken to in 10 years trying to get hotel rooms, that’s how desperate people were,” Meade said. “There wasn’t a single hotel room open in Fairfield or Westchester County. It was very, very tough.”

COMFORT FOOD AND DRINK
For restaurants, the storm offered a chance at business from storm-weary neighbors looking to share stories or just warm up.

“Our bar was packed,” said Jon Pratt, owner/chef of Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown Heights. “Everybody wanted to come in and talk about what they had to do to get power, to get their generators running.”

The first day of the nor’easter, Pratt said the whiteout conditions kept customers away. By the next day, the restaurant lost about 100 reservations. But those tables quickly filled back up for an especially busy Saturday, as Pratt said adventurous patrons made their way to his place.

But to be in position to serve those customers, Pratt said, “every day it was some new challenge.”

He bought a generator large enough to power the whole restaurant following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. That kept his place running through each storm, despite the fact that the building was without power for close to 11 days.

“We make our power the way we make our desserts,” Pratt joked. “From scratch.”

But then he still had to figure out how to get customers there. His restaurant is in a hilly, densely wooded area. Throughout the week, road crews blocked off different parts of the three roads that lead to Peter Pratt’s Inn. He described using repurposed real estate yard signs to mark different detours into the restaurant.

“The whole time it was like that,” Pratt said. “What do we have to do today to get people in to the restaurant?”

COMMUNITY OUTREACH
Some businesses used the storm and its outages to reach out to customers and offer a helping hand.

DeCicco & Sons offered up the refrigerators and freezers at its six county grocery stores (plus one in Putnam County) to neighbors without power. Four of those stores lost power and relied on backup generators. President and CEO John DeCicco Jr. said the Armonk and Harrison locations each ran on generators for more than 65 hours.

More than 500 customers used the store’s freezers and refrigerators following the first storm, DeCicco Jr. said. The stores also lowered costs on warm meals and offered their bar and seating areas as warming stations with Wi-Fi.

“We had almost 180,000 shares of what we did on social media and 3,000 comments, which was truly amazing to us,” DeCicco Jr. said in an email. “We are so happy to be able to help the community when it’s needed … it was as if the days after the storm the communities in which we do business became a closer family.”

At Backstage Salon in Croton-on-Hudson, stylists offered free blowouts to anyone without power. Co-owner Maggie Pinque said the salon itself was out of power for five days following the storm, requiring several hours on the phone rescheduling appointments. She posted the salon’s offer on the business’ Facebook page and community boards.

She said about a dozen people took the salon up on that offer, including some new customers.

“When somebody touches your head and washes it and blows it out, even if you’re having the worst day in the world, there’s a very calming sensation to that,” Pinque said. “We just wanted to do something to make somebody feel good about themselves.”

UTILITY UNREST
Tensions between elected officials and the two power companies serving Westchester County carried over into the days following the storm.

County Executive George Latimer said there was “failure on the streets of this county” at a press conference with more than 30 other municipal leaders on March 9. He has called for leadership at Con Edison and NYSEG to resign.

The Westchester County Board of Legislators, meanwhile, passed a resolution at its March 12 meeting calling on both companies to offer rebates or rate reductions to customers who lost power. The board also wants the companies to reimburse the county for the money it spent operating warming centers and paying overtime to first responders.

The state Public Service Commission has opened its investigation into the utilities’ storm response as directed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo before the second storm hit. Each company could face sanctions if the state finds fault in their response.

Con Edison President and CEO John McAvoy defended his company’s performance in a press conference on March 9. He said the storm damage was so severe his company is “not just repairing our system, in many cases we’re actually rebuilding it.”