Hurricane Sandy: Will the Utilities Do Any Better This Time?
Improved communications strategies are in place, but the utilities and state officials are already warning about 10-day outages.
With predictions of a potentially catastrophic storm hitting New Jersey tomorrow, many residents probably will spend lot of time without any power this week.
The good news is unlike the past two storms that hammered the state, residents and local officials may have a better idea of where and when the lights will come back on, as a result of actions implemented by the four electric utilities.
The bad news is that because of the severity of the storm, the president of Jersey Central Power & Light already has warned that some residents could be without electricity for up to 10 days, a situation state officials hoped would be avoided by the utilities adopting many of the 143 recommendations outlined by a consultant to improve response times when restoring service in major storms.
So while customers may be in the dark literally, there's less of a chance they'll be in the dark figuratively. That's because the utilities have stepped up communications to local officials and residents about restoration plans. That includes using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to alert customers about power outages via mobile phones.
Gov. Chris Christie said yesterday the administration also plans to hold phone conferences with local officials at least two or three times daily to give them the latest information on outages, road closures, and other storm-related issues.
Unfortunately, some of the recommendations outlined in the report, unveiled this past summer, have yet to be implemented. If and when they are, it could prove to be a lengthy, expensive process.
For instance, in the two major storms that caused the state to explore this issue, tens of thousands of customers lost power because 15 utility substations -- which convert electricity from high-voltage lines and deliver it to residents and businesses -- were flooded.
The report urged the agency to look at the utilities’ plans to deal with the problem -- such as relocating substations, building floodwalls, or raising the height of the facilities. Some permanent solutions have yet to be implemented.
At a briefing yesterday afternoon, Board of Public Utilities President Bob Hanna said the state’s four electric utilities are sandbagging their substations, including some that have never flooded in the past.
Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility, has hooked up mobile substations in River Edge and New Milford, loading transformers on flatbed trailers to support electric load in the flood-prone areas, according to Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility.
The utilities are also recruiting extra crews, contractors, and utility personnel from as far away as San Diego to help restore power in the aftermath of the storm, Hanna said.
Not pulling in extra people was a major failing of the utilities in to past storms, according to the consultant’s report. During Hurricane Irene, none of the state’s four electric utilities got as much help as they requested from other regional power companies -- or got it quickly enough -- the report concluded.
But both Hanna and Christie warned of widespread and prolonged power outages.
Referring to Hurricane Irene, which left 1.9 million customers without power at some point, the governor said, “This has the potential to be worse because it might linger.’’ The weather forecasts predict heavy rain beginning yesterday evening and lasting up to 36 hours, Christie said.
Meteorologists agree. “An extended period of wind gusts between 40 miles per hour and 60 mph is forecast for two days, which will take its toll on structures, trees, and power lines,’’ predicted Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.
Such wind gusts, Hanna warned could bring down transmission lines, an event that occurred in South Jersey earlier this year when a freak storm pounded the region. If so, tens of thousands of customers could lose power, he said.
Still, Hanna predicted an improved response. “The performance will be much better this time around,’’ Hanna said.
Chris Eck, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light, which came under the harshest criticism for its communication with customers and local officials in previous storms, said its customers will be better informed because of plans to use social media to inform. “That’s one big plus,’’ he said.
But how long customers might be out is still an unknown, he said. “We just don’t know how severe the storm will be,’’ Eck said. “It could stay here for a couple of days with very high winds.’’
There is no question the state is not underestimating the potential damage of the yet-to-arrive storm. The Christie administration has closed casinos in Atlantic City; ordered the evacuation of the Jersey Shore barrier islands; shut down NJ Transit; given state government today off; and strongly urged public schools to close.
“We can’t stop the storm,’’ Christie said at an afternoon briefing on steps the administration is taking. “We need to prepare for the worst here.’’ In response to the previous storms, the state’s utilities have stepped up replacing infrastructure and accelerated tree-trimming to reduce power outages
PSE&G, for example, has spent $28 million in trimming trees away from power lines, a major cause of power outages, according to Johnson.