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Rockaway fire victims sue

By Bianca Fortis

A group of Breezy Point and Rockaway Beach residents has filed suit against the Long Island Power Authority and National Grid, alleging the utility providers were responsible for the fires that engulfed their homes immediately after Hurricane Sandy.

About 30 people filed suit earlier this year, and last week another 120 filed in a separate legal action in Queens Supreme Court. They are suing for property and economic damages, which they say were sustained as a result of negligence.

On Oct. 28, a mandatory evacuation order was issued throughout the Rockaways, forcing residents of the peninsula out of their homes. Many of the Breezy Point and Rockaway Beach residents returned to find nothing left of their homes and businesses but charred rubble.

In December the FDNY announced it had determined that the worst Rockaways fires were caused by rising sea water, an effect of the raging storm, coming into contact with electrical systems inside the homes.

One fire in Breezy Point leveled 126 homes and damaged 22 others, and two fires on Rockaway Beach destroyed another 47 structures, according to the FDNY.

The lawsuit alleges the utility providers should have known about the corrosive effects of saltwater on live electrical wires and that the electrical systems should have been shut off as a required preemptive measure.

According to court documents, “respondents were negligent in failing to de-energize at a time when an emergency was declared and fires were a foreseeable risk of failing to de-energize the system.”

It also alleges that National Grid was responsible for maintaining an emergency plan under a $224 million annual contract that gave operations and maintenance responsibilities to the London-based company.

There is no dollar amount in damages listed in the court documents, but Keith Sullivan, the attorney representing most of the claimants, said Tuesday he estimates them to total $80 million.

“Had LIPA and National Grid acted responsibly in preparing for the storm, my clients would be living in their homes with all of their life’s possessions and these two communities would not look like a war zone,” Sullivan said in a statement when the latest round of suits were filed. “No one was home in the houses where the fires started. Electricity and saltwater is a deadly combination. We would have thought the power companies knew this already.”

In response to the lawsuits, LIPA issued a statement: “While we are sensitive to those families and individuals who suffered tragic losses from Sandy, the effort to place fault for this tragedy with the utility is misplaced.”

National Grid also issued a statement: “National Grid’s actions during Sandy were reasonable and appropriate and we don’t believe that these claims have merit.”

In response, Sullivan said, “To say it lacks merit is to assume that these people are making this up. They spent more time drafting that silly statement than preparing for the storm.”

Reach reporter Bianca Fortis by email at bfortis@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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