Frustrated customers vent at BPU hearing on storm response

“We’re people! We pay our bills! We’re hardworking people. And I’m a little fed up.”

Mara Modes of Hopatcong was one of many JCP&L customers who expressed frustration and fury while venting a month after back-to-back nor’easters hammered New Jersey and left a combined half-million people powerless and shivering, some for days. Residents and town officials gathered at a Board of Public Utilities fact-finding forum in Byram Thursday night, to tell their stories directly to squirming utility reps. They complained about poor communication.

“I didn’t even get robocalls. I had to call in, and I got, ‘It’ll be fixed Wednesday, it’ll be fixed Thursday.’ Then, they just didn’t answer at all. I didn’t even get an answer. It was just like, ‘Whenever,” said Modes.

“They’re telling people, ‘Your power’s back on!’ And people are like, ‘No, my power’s not back on,’ and that was driving people nuts,” said an exasperated Sam Morris, mayor of Mine Hill.

Morris flashed photos of leaning power poles, and complained JCP&L badly needs to repair and update its infrastructure. But he also pointed to rural northwest New Jersey’s tall trees and tangled branches growing through and over power lines as a clear hazard utilities must remove, with enabling regulations from lawmakers, if required.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really want to hear from the tree-huggers. I don’t want to hear, ‘Well, you know, the trees — they have rights, too!’ No, they don’t! That lady on the defibrillator, on the oxygen? She has a lot more rights. And I’ve told the people who complained to me, ‘If you like the trees so much, you know what? We’re going to cut it down and bring it to your house and you can give it all the love you want. But we need power,” said Morris.

JCP&L did summon mutual aid, hundreds of trucks and thousands of linemen from out-of-state power companies that converged on the area. But many residents and officials testified, they often saw crews just parked, waiting hours for direction from JCP&L.

“I come back up to my house, the four trucks are still sitting there … 2:30, they pack up and go. They didn’t do a damn thing,” said George Kately of Sparta.

“They simply didn’t have the work orders, and they were literally falling over each other, waiting to get to work. And it also added to the frustration because people would see them parked alongside of the road waiting for the work orders, thinking, ‘Hey, why aren’t they out there, fixing our wires?’ said Assemblyman Harold Wirths.

“That’s my number one concern, is that when you bring these armies in, you get some kind of system to deploy them efficiently,” said Mayor George Harper of Sandyston Township.

“I really hope you guys drill down and try to understand, where is the disconnect? How were they left to sit there. Was it because there wasn’t enough resources in the dispatching center to get the orders out to them?” asked Byram Mayor Alex Rubenstein.

Gov. Murphy ordered the BPU to investigate the response to recent storm-related outages by all four of New Jersey’s major utility companies.

“We always take the feedback from our customers. We look for the feedback and take the feedback. We’ll go back and listen to what they have to say. But there are some things that we need to explain better about how our restoration process works,” said Ron Morano, a spokesperson for JCP&L.

JCP&L’s insisted it met all 100 performance protocols the BPU set after Superstorm Sandy, but BPU President Joe Fiordaliso’s somewhat less sanguine.

“One of the parts of our investigation is to make sure all of those protocols were followed by all of the utilities, and if not they’re going to be held accountable,” said Fiordaliso.

He confirmed there are protocols that require better communication and more coordinated deployment than what residents observed.

The meeting marked the first of five public hearings. The BPU has scheduled a second one for April 12 in Parsippany-Troy Hills.