Controversy swirls in Gloria's wake. Four states launch probes of why it took so long to restore power

Long gone but not soon to be forgotten, hurricane Gloria continues to produce gales of controversy in the Northeast as states total damages and residents fume about slow restoration of power. As of Thursday morning, most private and public utility companies in New York and the New England states were reporting only scattered, stubborn outages in hard-to-get-at areas. With few schools still closed in the region, much of the frustration vented at the utilities in recent days has eased.

``It's down to the trenches now,'' said a Boston Edison Company spokesman. ``We're fixing a house here and a business there. It's not the kind of thing where you can throw a switch and get 500 people back.''

Other utilities were at the same stage, while state officials continued to tote up damage costs. The total was at more than $210 million as of yesterday, with assessment continuing. States more or less directly in Gloria's path were: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.

No one disputes that Gloria left an incredible tangle of downed trees and powerlines for utility crews to cope with. Nevertheless, inquiries into the adequacy of response were promised in at least four states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.

Long Island Lighting Company (Lilco) and Eastern Edison Company in southeastern Massachusetts were targets of particularly heavy criticism. Although Lilco mounted a massive effort shortly after Gloria smashed through its service area, there was a public outcry when it was disclosed that the company's chairman, William J. Catacosinos, did not cut short a European vacation to return to New York after the hurricane struck. The chairman was expected back Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed a five-member task force over the weekend to investigate Lilco's preparations for coping with the storm.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities scheduled three hearings in different localities in reponse to an avalanche of public complaints. Marsha Molay, spokeswoman for DPU chairman Paul Levy, said the large number of irate calls to the department continued, even after most customers' power had been restored. Many complained of not being able to reach the company or of being treated rudely when they did.

Ruth Stetson, spokeswoman for Eastern, said offices were closed because all personnel except 35 emergency-line operators were assigned to help direct the 104 repair crews -- many from out of state -- seeking to restore service in the heavily wooded area.

Ms. Stetson said the company ``plans to work closely with the DPU'' in its investigation and is ``confident the department will agree that Eastern Edison has worked hard to restore service.''

In Connecticut, Gov. William A. O'Neill said he expects utility regulators to review the response to Gloria's damage. He added, ``I think under the circumstances that existed -- the most severe storm to hit the state in its history as far as doing damage to utility lines -- they did pretty well.''

But Rhode Island Gov. Edward D. DiPrete ordered state Public Utilities Commission chairman Edward F. Burke to look into whether power companies should be using heavier, more weather-resistant wiring, whether underground wiring would be a viable alternative to overhead lines, and whether coastal and heavily wooded areas should be given special consideration by utilities when existing power lines are replaced or repaired.

While venting their ire at the seemingly impersonal utility companies, people in the affected areas displayed no lack of concern for their neighbors and goodwill toward the repair crews, many of whom were from other areas. They were often greeted with cheers and resfreshments when they showed up in afflicted neighborhoods. Also, local residents provided guidance where instructions from utility management often seemed lacking.

Although many people will have large stacks of firewood for next winter, municipalities are having to dip into snow-removal budgets, contingency funds, and, in some cases, rare surpluses to pay for the clearing away tons of debris. Connecticut Governor O'Neill said he will try to free at least some of the state's $52 million budget surplus to help communities pay Gloria's tab.

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