Weathering the storm

Opinions on utility companies' responses vary

Photo By David VanDeventer
Utility companies were hard at work in Rahway last weekend, with many downed trees finally being removed along Jefferson Avenue.

After more than two weeks since superstorm Sandy slammed into the state leaving 2.7 million New Jersey residents without power for over a week, local elected officials have differing views on how utility companies measured up.

The statistics were staggering. The destruction beyond description. But as Union County towns began to slowly come back online, questions are surfacing about the slow response by utility companies.

Although the state has yet to come up with an official damage estimate yet, some have put the overall amount at $50 billion, making Sandy the most expensive storm since Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans in 2005.

Since Oct. 29 when Sandy made landfall, New Jersey power companies have continued to report daily that the problem was the fact they were dealing with damage on an unprecedented scope.

But, utility companies were not working alone. They were buoyed by more than 4,000 out-of-state utility companies who came from as far away as California to help restore power to the Garden State. Still, it took a week or more for the majority of Public Service Electric and Gas and Jersey Central Power and Light to bring customers back online. For many elected officials that was too long.

However, all agreed the blame should not be placed on utility workers but rather the mega companies PSE&G and JCP&L, who are charged with delivering service to residents.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had no problem placing blame for the delay in restoration of power, calling utility companies “nameless, faceless monopolies that weren’t up to the job.” He also was astonished by the lack of preparation, noting “they ran out of poles, believe it or not. How do you run out of poles?”

Gov. Chris Christie was more benevolent in his comments about the job New Jersey utility companies accomplished, as well as the speed in which power was coming back online. He also made it clear where he stood when it came to pointing fingers.

“The villain in this case is Hurricane Sandy,” he said at a press conference Sunday, praising utility crews for working 16-hour days through a nor’easter to restore power across the state. Later that same day JCP&L said it would take into this week to restore power to about 120,000 households that still remain without heat or electricity.

Christie also noted at the press conference that JCP&L had done “significantly better,” than last year when Tropical Storm Irene hit the state. The governor criticized JCP&L last year after restoring power took longer than expected.

JCP&L, the states second largest utility, was hit harder by both Sandy and the nor-easter than the state’s largest utility, PSE&G, according to a spokesperson at the governor’s office.

Prior to press time PSE&G reported 278 outages, the majority in Union county. JCP&L had 3,470 customers waiting for power to be turned back on, but pointed out that more than 30,000 customers on the barrier islands and along the Jersey shore could not be restored due to heavy damage.

Meanwhile, elected officials did not hold back when it came to explaining how they felt about the response of utility companies.

In Elizabeth, which has 51,000 electric customers, 49,000 remained without power immediately after Sandy hit. As of Friday, 3,200 still had no power and it was unknown when it would be restored.

“I think it’s about time power companies gave back,” said Mayor Chris Bollwage in an interview with LocalSource Friday, but when it came to those out in the field, this mayor had nothing but praise.

“The men and women out there are doing a phenomenal job,” Bollwage said, explaining that “it’s the people making all the decisions that need a wake-up call.”

“The problem we found was that people answering the phones at these utility companies are not getting the proper information from decision makers, which in turn confuses the people who just want answers about when their power will be back on,” said the city mayor.

Bollwage, who was in on daily conference calls between the governor and utility company decision makers, gleaned some knowledge from these conversations.

“PSE&G is looking at this in very finite numbers, but people need to know where they are at and how to plan in the event they won’t have power for days or weeks,” Bollwage said.

The mayor, though, said “there is no rhyme or reason to how electric is set up in Elizabeth.”

Bollwage, however, took a proactive stance in case another storm like Sandy hits the state. By starting an online petition  asking the governor and the legislature to put a “FiveOffCreditOn” bill into legislation. The city mayor believes it will make an impact.

The proposed bill calls for electric companies around the state to credit residents one month’s worth of electricity for every five days without power.

“Over last weekend, PSE&G promised Elizabeth residents 100 percent full restoration of their power by Monday Nov. 5, however, when the day came about, they reneged that promise,” the mayor said, explaining that each day after the storm a work list was sent out but the estimated number of residents getting power back was “simply not enough.”

Under the proposed bill, Bollwage said, thousands of residents would have already received two months worth of credit towards their electric bills. He explained that instead of fining electric companies for lengthy delays in power restoration, this legislation would help put money in the pockets of affected residents and provide  utility companies the incentive to keep working vigorously.

“It has been frustrating to see complete neighborhoods in darkness and electrical debris on the streets 10 days after the storm,” the mayor said, noting with the bill he suggested, residents will at least know their electric company will be working at full capacity and that consumers will receive something for this inconvenience.

Anyone interested in signing Bollwage’s petition can access the document at www.facebook.com/FiveOffCreditOn.

In Union, Mayor Joseph Florio was frustrated by the number of outages in the township, but he said he knew why restoring power took so long.

“We have a 100-year-old infrastructure, poles that are bending and they just keep shoring them up and it’s not working,” he said.

Florio pointed out that the township tried to control things from their end, but in the end, he explained, the utility company substations, many located near water, proved to be the downfall.

“If we have a conversation about this hurricane later, they have to either elevate those substations or move them away from  bodies of water,” the mayor said, explaining “these things got caught in the storm surge and that put everyone out of power.”

Florio said solving the problem has to start at the source.

“I have never seen anything like the damage that resulted from this storm, never,” the mayor emphasized, adding that he personally discovered the electrical circuits in his town “go every which way.”

Florio also pointed out another problem — reaching residents using the reverse 9-1-1 system.

“The problem these days is that most people don’t have a land line anymore,” the mayor said. “We need to communicate with residents and we have to find a way to do that in emergencies. One way is to use the board of education’s notification system and we have to work that out with them.”

Florio also mentioned that from his conversations with utility companies and in conference calls with the governor, “some of these fixes are not permanent.”

As far as an investigation into how utility companies handed restoration efforts, the Union mayor felt that would not solve the problems at hand.

“I don’t think an investigation is what is needed. More importantly, we need to find out how we can protect our electrical infrastructure the next time a catastrophic storm hits the area,” the mayor said, adding “everyone needs to start thinking out of the box.”

“I think we all need to sit down and figure out how to strengthen the lines,” the mayor said, “then we need to decide how power is delivered.”

Florio believes that after the long number of days people were without power, something has to be done and soon.

“Too many people were out for too long, and I believe the governor will lead the effort in finding out how to avoid this next time a storm hits,” Florio added.

Linden Mayor Rich Gerbounka, whose city was hit hard by a 13-foot storm surge in the Tremley Point area, had nothing but praise for utility workers.

“PSE&G had a herculean task to perform and they are getting it done,” the mayor said.

“They have been out there 24/7 working to restore power, but there are areas that were very hard hit and it takes time to get things up and working again when there is that much damage,” he explained, but added that there were issues that added to the problems.

“The outages aren’t logical. It’s random,” he explained, but had a different view of how utility companies handled the job ahead of them.

“It’s easy to be critical when there has been a catastrophe, but you can’t expect them to work miracles. It’s unfair to blame them for the length of time it took to restore power. We took a heavy hit with Sandy,” Gerbounka said.