HOPATCONG, NJ – Communication, or the lack of it, was the main topic of a Board of Public Utilities hearing in the Hopatcong Middle School on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
Host Mayor Sylvia Petillo noted her borough was the hardest hit in the area.
“There was one big problem,” Petillo said. “Lack of communication.”
She said she found out by accident that Jersey Central Power and Light (JCP&L) was assessing the damage in the borough. When she spoke to people from the power company, it was obvious they did not know the borough, she added.
Petillo’s comments were echoed by other municipal leaders, not all from sprawling, randomly-developed municipalities, with tiny streets that wind over hills.
Rockaway Borough is two square miles, Councilman Joe Vicente said, and JCP&L was in and out five times. It took two weeks to restore power to the last 200 homes. Noting he saw 50 trucks mustered at the Rockaway Mall in neighboring Rockaway Township, Vicente said he was, "tempted to commandeer a crew.”
Gary Larson of Frankford Township noted the Sussex County Fairgrounds in the Augusta section of his township was a staging area for the trucks. “Frankford people saw the trucks at the fairgrounds, and then saw them drive past their houses.”
“The people who did the work were phenomenal,” Vernon Township Mayor Victor Marotta said, but he criticized the company for not having an overlay map so they could match pole numbers to locations.
“Local OEM's don’t have grid maps,” Stanhope Councilman George Graham pointed out.
Resident Kim Armstrong of Roxbury commented, “It's unfathomable you don’t have a township map.”
JCP&L representative Don Lynch noted the grid does not necessarily respect municipal borders.
"A feeder may service three towns,” he said.
He also said the state expects continuous improvement from the power companies.
Hopatcong resident Rose Nitzsche said, “You didn’t learn from any prior storm. This storm was not a surprise. How prepared are you for next time?"
Lynch said JCP&L did learn from Hurricane Irene, and the Halloween snowstorm of 2011. They sandbagged the substations, but the storm surge overtopped the sandbags, he said.
Every speaker praised the workers, many of whom came from the South or Midwest. BPU Chair Robert Hanna noted “Electric utilities can’t maintain a wartime crew in peacetime.”
He commented JCP&L brought together the largest workforce ever mobilized here. More than 17,000 people worked on the restoration of power, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Forest Service, and crews flown in by FEMA from California on military jets.
Sparta Mayor Jerry Murphy told the BPU his township’s DPW would have done the clean up. “Just shut our grid down and we can clean up the trees.”
Hanna said even when the power has been shut off, electricity can back up from generators or solar installations if they were not installed properly.
However, some speakers were concerned about access. Andrew Dick of Hopatcong pointed out every major road into the borough was blocked for nearly a week. “No one worried about clearing Lakeside Boulevard until were ready to work on the lines. The tree crews could have been dispatched earlier.”
Marotta, and several other speakers noted that many Sussex County residents get their power from Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative. Some 60 percent of Vernon is covered by Sussex Rural Electric, and they had power back within 36 hours, Marotta said.
Hanna said the BPU doesn’t regulate co-ops or municipal power companies.
Bill DeBoer of Wantage said his Sussex Rural Electric is headquartered in his township, and township officials inquired if people could switch from JCP&L to Sussex Rural, and were told they could not.
Hanna said there is a process for switching, and staff members of the BPU who were present at the hearing could provide DeBoer with information.
Ed Holmes, a former power company employee and now a consultant, was among those who criticized JCP&L for its antiquated equipment. A number of speaker said they were told by workers this was the first time they had dealt with such old equipment. Holmes particularly said the power companies should have a system that alerts them where the outages are.
Lynch said so-called smart grid technologies are extremely expensive.
Paul Flanagan of the state Division of Rate Counsel read a statement including: “When storms like Sandy occur, there will be outages. I cannot, sitting here today, say that the time it took the utilities to restore service after Sandy was excessive. No one wants to suffer a long-term outage, but we can’t create an expectation that outages will not occur or will be of brief duration if we implement certain measures in the wake of a storm like Sandy. By far, the worst possible outcome would be to go on a spending spree, adding significantly to rates and then have another storm of that magnitude and find ourselves again with lengthy and wide-spread outages.”
Residents wanted to emphasize the competence of the workers. “The work crews were amazing,” Fred Kantor from Mountain Lakes said. “I saw no poles down unless trees hit the wires or the poles. This area was developed 80 to 100 years ago. These old trees are going to come down. These things are going to happen. We aren’t owed electricity.”
The age of development in this area means “we have an antiquated system,” Valente of Rockaway Borough said. “We have to be self-sustaining for three days. Our towns have to provide services: food, showers, a place for pets and back-up power.”
At the end of the session, Lynch thanked the people for coming and said, "We go back and retool.”
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