Dozens of residents met with Mayor Ellen Dickson and key city officials in Council Chambers on Tuesday night to discuss the effects of Superstorm Sandy and ways to handle future storms.
Many residents expressed their thoughts and concerns with JCP&L throughout the informal gathering, which Dickson dubbed as a “power issues” town hall meeting.
Numerous community members cited JCP&L’s lack of communication, disorganization and outdated infrastructure as key reasons why residents had to suffer through lengthy power outages in the city after Sandy, and following Irene and the October Snowstorm in 2011. Some said it wasn’t until day 13 post-Sandy when subcontractors from around the country — not local JCP&L workers — were even in town to make the necessary repairs.
Dickson said this was her first chance to participate in the Emergency Operations Center as Mayor.
“That was activated at 2 p.m. in the afternoon on Oct. 29 and we met every single day. We didn’t miss a beat on most services,” Dickson said. “This was maybe the worst storm to ever hit New Jersey. JCP&L, every day on their call, would say, ‘this is our Katrina.’ Ninety percent of their customers did lose power. They had damage to every single substation and they had to restore almost their entire system within two weeks.”
IMPROVING JCP&L's INFRASTRUCTURE
Dickson said it is crucial for JCP&L to update its infrastructure, as the area could experience another huge storm in the near future, given the three that hit the area in the last year.
One resident said First Energy is updating equipment with the latest intelligent meters and grids in some parts of New Jersey, according to the company’s website, but specific towns haven’t been announced yet.
If the equipment was updated in the Summit area, it would help JCP&L and city officials to determine more accurate power outage numbers during the next storm.
City Administrator Chris Cotter said the power outage numbers the city received from JCP&L after Sandy were just estimates because of their outdated equipment. If JCP&L updated the infrastructure with the latest intelligent meters, they would have accurate information on power outages.
BURYING POWER LINES
While it comes with a huge price tag, burying power lines in the ground is one option Dickson brought up. She said lines have been buried in Summit on Main Street since 1908 or so, and said expanding those lines could protect more of the downtown during the next power outage.
Summit resident Tom Ferguson said residents, business owners and city officials need to find ways to help JCP&L help the city. He suggested the city work with JCP&L to bury the power lines underground in the most important parts of town, as Dickson had said. That way, even if neighborhoods are still without power, the city is still able to function for its residents.
MORE LOCAL CONTROL
When it comes to any storm, having more local control could mean better communication and a better idea of when things could get back to normal.
Out of the hundreds of municipalities in New Jersey, nine municipalities own their utilities, Dickson said. Summit could try to take over utilities from JCP&L, but the process would take years, involve a number of steps and would be very expensive.
“First, you need have to have a voter referendum. Then, you hire an engineer to access the value of JCP&L’s system in Summit. Then, you approach JCP&L to buyout; the agreement would be unlikely," Dickson explained. “I guess Aberdeen, NJ was the most recent attempt in the 1980s. It was defeated at referendum and had major pushback by JCP&L. Other issues are the current municipal systems are grandfathered from paying utility taxes. So the new systems would not be exempt. That’s maybe an area where we could try to change the legislation.”
Summit resident Maria Zazzera, a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Committee Member, said it is a lengthy process and even if Summit were successful, the city “wouldn’t gain as much as you think.” Summit would just have more control and it would still take a very long time to fix utilities following a storm like Sandy, regardless of whether the utilities were owned by the city or JCP&L.
Madison, NJ is one of the nine municipalities that own utilities in New Jersey. Cotter said Madison hired its own subcontractors from Delaware and Louisiana in preparation for Sandy, who were on the ground, making repairs, right after the storm hit. However, in Summit, it took more than three days after JCP&L assessments by air and ground before any line groups were even assigned to Summit area.
“There is a correlation between local control and more rapid communication,” Cotter said.
During week two after Sandy hit, Dickson said the city was trying to bring in line workers hired by Madison to work in Summit since most of the repairs had been completed in Madison. But in order to do that, JCP&L would have had to approve those contractors to work on their utility lines in Summit. If those crews worked in Summit without JCP&L’s approval, Summit would have to foot the expensive bill.
Some residents at the meeting suggested JCP&L approve subcontractors that Summit could specifically hire in advance to deal with storms of Sandy’s magnitude.
Zazzera said the Board of Public Utilities will be hosting a number of public hearings to discuss how Sandy was handled by JCP&L and PSE&G, just as they did last year after Irene.
Information on those hearings will be published on the BPU website in the coming weeks and the hearings should take place in December, Zazzera said.
She encourages any and all residents to attend one of the hearings to offer their thoughts on how Sandy was handled and suggestions on how the utility companies can improve.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, who was at the meeting, suggested that residents with ideas for legislation should speak with her because any legislation put forward as a result of Sandy needs to work for the entire state, not just Summit.
Residents can contact Assemblywoman Munoz at email@example.com.
She also said the main JCP&L substations need to be identified in the area communities and need to be better protected.
Residents also suggested the city:
- Place portable generators at traffic lights instead of temporary stop signs. (New Providence had generators at their traffic lights.)
- Seriously consider putting power lines underground (One resident said San Diego is in the middle of a successful program to put all wires underground. It’s costing $2.2 million per year and they are doing 20 to 25 miles every year until they are finished.)
- Have more tree maintenance and trimming
SANDY BY THE NUMBERS
- Planning efforts took place 1 week before the storm
- 6,971 visitors at City’s Warming Center — unprecedented
- 993 hours of overtime worked by Police Officers
- 12 Hour shifts for Police Officers
- 1,316 incidents were reported and responded to by Police between Oct. 29 and Nov. 12
- 181 more incidents occurred than normal during peak of storm
- Two officers assigned downtown on walking beat because stores were open and a lot of activity
- 194 overnight stays at city’s shelter — unprecedented
- 411 volunteers assisted operating shelter and warming station
- 3,481 hours worked by DPW staff
- 4 sewer-pumping stations were on generator power
- 5,000 Kilowatt generator brought in from Pennsylvania to operate sewer pumping station on Constantine Place (also operates part of New Providence)
- 225 public and private trees were removed by DPW
- Numerous homes were damaged by trees (39 sustained major damage; 11 sustained minor damage; 4 were deemed uninhabitable from damages)
- 14 Code Red Alerts
- 15,191 text messages
- 203 tweets
- 65 Facebook posts
More numbers and information will be included in the eight-page After Action Report, which will be presented to Common Council at the Dec. 4 meeting.
COMMUNICATION WITH JCP&L AFTER SANDY
Dickson said she and the other Office of Emergency Management staff members were on the phone with JCP&L multiple times each day following Sandy. While JCP&L was honest up front and said it would take seven to 10 days or more to restore power, they said they'd have a street-by-street power restoration timeline for Summit and never issued one.
In addition, the company wouldn’t even issue a map of the power grid so the city could have a better idea of what areas were without power.
Assemblywoman Munoz said she tried to obtain a power grid map in the past and was told the company would never issue the map because it is “a homeland security issue.”
Cotter said Summit has an Emergency Management Plan in place and a number of annexes to be executed as needed once the plan is in action.
Following any storm like this, Cotter said the city always will assemble an After Action Plan (as mentioned above), where city officials review what they learned, what they can do better and include feedback from the community. As previously mentioned, that plan will be presented to Common Council at their next meeting on Dec. 4 and then published on the city’s website.
Some residents expressed concern with how the city communicates important information in an emergency and on a regular basis.
Dickson and Cotter said important information is always available on the city’s website, the city’s Facebook page, on Dickson’s facebook page and at City Hall, 512 Springfield Ave. They both encourage residents to regularly check those websites or stop by City Hall for information.
City officials said there is a capability on the city’s website where residents can sign up to receive emails but they have yet to decide exactly how to use it. A decision is expected to be made in the next few weeks and information will be published on the city’s website for residents to sign up.
Dickson said the city is in the early stages of forming a Community Emergency Response Task Force Team, which residents are welcome to join. As more individuals from the community become involved, more information about the committee will be published on the city’s website. Those interested in joining should contact Councilman Patrick Hurley, who is chairing the team, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Police Chief Robert Weck urges residents to sign up for Code Red Alerts and Nixle on the city’s website, as the city sends out numerous important messages through each system to participants via text messages and emails.
Weck said he is also starting C.E.R.T., which stands for Community Emergency Response Team. This team will be made up of volunteers who will assist the Fire and Police Departments, and will be covered under the Good Samaritan Act.
“They would be trained and get this program so if we had something like [Sandy], we would then have a mechanism to schedule volunteers who want to help and we could direct them to the Middle School, the churches, the Senior Center where they can use what they’ve learned,” Weck explained. “So look for that. It will come out on Nixle and we’ll also put it on the website, and I’m sure that will go on Facebook with everything else. We’re looking to get that up and running, and hopefully when the hundred-year storm that seems to come every October comes again, we’ll be ready for it.”
Dickson said there will be another Town Hall meeting for residents and city officials in the future, which will be announced on the city’s website and facebook pages.