SUMMIT — The city is taking a proactive stance when it comes to any future storms that could leave residents without power for days. But the best lesson, according to the mayor, is being aware of what went right and wrong during and after the storm.
The night superstorm Sandy hit, which was downgraded from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone before striking land, Summit was as ready as it could be. As ready as any municipality was in New Jersey to take on one of the most catastrophic storms to ever hit the area.
After the storm, when city officials took a look at how Summit fared during the emergency, the answer could be found in the response numbers.
There were 6,971 visitors to city warming centers, 993 hours of overtime put in by police officers, and 1,316 incidents reported to police between the day of the storm and Nov. 12, or 181 more than normal during the peak of a storm. Police also responded to 42 carbon monoxide calls, the majority of which were related to the use of generators.
Firefighters worked non-stop responding to structure calls, one deemed serious. But they were also out on the road continuously using chain saws to remove tree limbs which were blocking roadways, among the countless other duties performed.
There were also 411 volunteers manning shelters and warming stations, where 194 people sought overnight stays at the city shelter, a number that was yet again “unprecedented,” officials said.
The Department of Public Works put in 3,481 hours, many of those hours cutting down and removing 225 publicly and privately owned trees. There were a reported 39 homes that sustained major damage, 11 homes with minor damage and four homes determined “uninhabitable.”
Summit took on 14 code red alerts, received and sent 15,191 text messages, 203 tweets and issued 65 Facebook posts.
Recently dozens of residents met informally at a town hall meeting with Mayor Ellen Dickson, city officials and JCP&L to discuss how Summit fared during Sandy.
Among the many issues surfacing during the meeting was JCP&L’s lack of communication and the disorganization and outdated infrastructure that ended up keeping thousands of residents in the dark for more than a week.
With some still feeling the lasting effects of Tropical Storm Irene, residents were frustrated and expressed disbelief that it took 13 days to get power restored to several sections of the city. Restoration of power, they maintained, only happened after subcontractors from out of state showed up to lend a hand.
Dickson explained that while it was her first opportunity as mayor to see the city’s emergency operations center in action, it was quite an experience.
Dickson said from when the storm hit she met every day with officials manning the front and was impressed by the amount of work that was accomplished, considering the catastrophic impact.
“We didn’t miss a beat on most services,” the mayor said, adding “this was maybe the worst storm to ever hit New Jersey.”
Dickson also pointed out that she spoke with JCP&L every day following the storm about the city getting power back in a timely manner and without fail, she stressed, the power company would bring up that “this is our Katrina.”
She did mention the utility company was honest and up front about the fact it would take seven to 10 days, or more, to complete the work required to get residents and businesses back online. But, there were other disappointments when it came to communication with the utility company.
The mayor said although JCP&L promised they would provide a street-by-street power restoration timeline for Summit, the city never received this information, despite asking for it on a daily basis.
Dickson also explained that every substation sending power to the city sustained some kind of damage from the superstorm and the storm impacted 90 percent of the utility company’s customers in Summit. However, the mayor said within two weeks these substations were up and running.
Regardless of how things turned out following the storm, the mayor felt it was crucial for JCP&L to upgrade its infrastructure before the area is hit again by another major storm. Officials and residents, though, thought the problems that surfaced during the storm could have been avoided by the utility company.
For instance, City Administrator Chris Cotter pointed out that power outage numbers received from JCP&L could only be estimated because the equipment was so outdated.
Cotter suggested that if the equipment was updated, both the power company along with city officials would have more accurate numbers available, and the ability to inform residents when their power was expected to be back on.
Also brought up by the mayor was putting power lines underground, like they have been on Main Street since 1908. One resident suggested the city work with JCP&L to bury power lines in the most critical parts of Summit.
“That way,” resident Tom Ferguson said, “even if entire neighborhoods were without power, the city would be able to function for residents.”
Others felt the city needed more local control so they were not at the mercy of power companies. But gaining that type of control might be easier said than done, according to the mayor.
Although there are hundreds of municipalities in New Jersey, only nine actually own their own utilities, Dickson explained.
Aberdeen was the most recent town to try this avenue to utility independence in the 1980s, the mayor said, adding that JCP&L fought the move and the initiative later was defeated on referendum. Plus, she said, going that route could take years, involve a number of steps and be very expensive.
“First you have to have a voter referendum,” Dickson explained, adding then the city would have to hire an engineer to discover the value of JCP&L’s system in Summit. After that, she said, the city would have to approach the utility company about a buyout and such an agreement panning out would be “unlikely.”
One resident said even if the city was successful and able to gain more control of power in Summit, there still could be problems. After a storm like Sandy, the resident explained, regardless who owned the power lines, it would still take a long time to repair damaged lines and substations.
Madison is one of the nine towns in the state that own their utilities. Cotter said prior to Sandy hitting, this municipality hired subcontractors from Delaware and Louisiana in order to be prepared. These subcontractors, he added, hit the ground running right after the storm and began making needed repairs.
In comparison, Cotter said, for Summit it was more than three days after JCP&L made assessments by air and land before linemen were even assigned to the city.
“There is a correlation between local control and more rapid communication,” the city administrator added.
A full week after Sandy hit Dickson said the city tried to bring in Madison’s line workers to Summit, but that presented a problem because the city required JCP&L’s approval. Moving ahead without their approval, she said, would have been very costly for the city.
Cotter explained that because the city has an emergency management plan in place, everyone was ready to put this action plan to work. Still, he also felt it was important to review what was learned and what can be done better.
Residents did express concern about the way the city communicated important information during an emergency. Dickson and Cotter said information is always available on the city’s website, Facebook and Dickson’s Facebook page, but did not address the problem of using these particular means of communication during a power outage.
In the 20-page After Action Report the city compiled and put on their website, officials pointed out that although the city was well prepared and responded effectively in the emergency situation presented by the storm, there were challenges to overcome.
As a result, each department involved with the storm identified areas in need of improvement.
Among the issues presenting problems was the fact the city could have used more generators. With four city facilities operating on generators and the transfer station without power, officials spent a great deal of time maintaining, repairing and acquiring a temporary generator.
Another critical problem involved food and accommodations for municipal employees that had to be housed overnight due to dangerous travel and weather conditions.
Parts for equipment also caused issues to arise because of disrupted supply lines.
City officials found the inability of gas stations to power their pumps resulted in a shortage of stations able to supply gas to the public. Long lines of vehicles waiting for gas required substantial city resources to create and maintain traffic and security plans at the stations that were able to open.
Moving forward, the mayor said the city is spearheading a Community Emergency Response Task Force Team, which residents can join. She said as more residents become involved, information about the progress will be posted on the city website.
Police Chief Robert Weck urged residents to sign up for Code Red Alerts and Nixle on the city website since this is an excellent means of obtaining important public messages.