Residents and officials from across Bergen County had a central message for NJ Board of Public Utilities representatives Monday – better communication is essential during future storms.
The BPU public hearing, it’s sixth across the state since Hurricane Irene, was to solicit commentary and suggestions on the state’s preparedness and response to the storm, BPU President Lee Solomon, who led the hearing, said, “We want to know what went right and what went wrong,” so that the state can be better prepared should “anything like this ever occur again."
Concerns voiced during the Monday afternoon public hearing at centralized on power outages during Hurricane Irene. Residents and officials alike said they were left in the dark by local power companies, unsure of how many people lost power, and when power might be restored.
“Our police chief literally drives around to see who has power and who doesn’t,” Wyckoff Town Committeeman Brian Scanlan said. “I think it would be helpful if our law enforcement officials could know which homes are out, and when and if they get restored.”
According to Solomon, the technology simply isn’t in place to have that sort of reporting system during major storms. He called power outage reporting and restoration estimates an “inexact science.”
“Any numbers that were cited on websites had to be estimates,” Solomon said. According to Maria Pollard, a Rockland Electric representative at the hearing, the utility’s website estimates are constantly being updated during storms to reflect customer calls and field observations.
“Our estimates are driven by customers who call, and by workers who patrol the lines. For example, if they see a primary wire down, the control center knows how many homes that line feeds,” she said. “The outage map is not 100 percent though, so that’s why calling if you are experiencing an outage is so important.”
Solomon said that while the technology may be available to garner exact numbers of power outages, “the infrastructure is not in place,” and would be very expensive to put in place. Still, local officials urged for a more effective system.
Tenafly Mayor Peter Rustin argued that the communication issues that existed during the “last big storm” were still prevalent during Irene. ”If there is a [power] crew in our town, why can’t we be informed?” he asked. “”Our DPW was basically handcuffed by the fact that they didn’t know what was going on.”
Solomon said that an additional frustration for many state residents during Irene was that they would see power trucks driving through their neighborhoods, not stopping to repair anything. “Those are the crews that are literally sent out as scouters to see who is without power, but people see the trucks and it is frustrating,” he said.
Hillsdale resident Jim Moldow suggested power utility companies send out Twitter and Facebook alerts to keep residents informed, and that they clearly mark their trucks – which ones are surveying outages and which ones contain repair crews, as a way to diminish resident frustration.
An exception to the communication issues experienced by many of the other township officials at the hearing Monday, Mahwah Mayor John DaPuzzo said he “actually wanted to comment that Rockland Electric did a great job.” He said the township administration was in “constant communication” with the RE offices, and that most of the 5,000 residents who list power on the Sunday of the storm got it back by Wednesday.
The flooding of the New Milford power substation was another major concern voiced at the meeting. PSE&G during the storm The substation was completely submerged in flood waters during Irene. Attendees questioned why the location of the power substation is not being reexamined in the wake of Irene.
Teaneck resident Eugene Hubbard presented Solomon and BPU Commissioners Nicholas Asselta and Joe Fiordaliso with a NOAA flood map. “It’s a mistake to put these substations so close to the river, the one in New Milford and there are others,” he said.
Moldow urged the BPU officials to investigate how many substations are in flood zones, and how often their proximity to water causes outages.
Senator Gerry Cardinale added that many of the power outages experienced were “unnecessary outages” because “we are not taking the right precautions in terms of where these facilities are located. It doesn’t even take an Irene to create flooding in some of these places,” he said.
Senator Bob Gordon closed out the hearing by asking three questions – is it possible to relocate flood-prone substations, is it possible to build a wall or similar protective measure around them, or is it possible to elevate the substations in an effort to avoid shutdowns in the future?
Solomon assured residents and officials that the transcript from this hearing, all of those previous, and any written comments submitted to the BPU would be analyzed and discussed in a future board hearing.
Residents with additional concerns can submit those in writing by Oct. 31.
Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Hurricane Irene comments – Docket Number EO110900543” referenced in the subject line. Letters, with that reference in the heading, can be mailed to:
Secretary of the Board Board of Public Utilities
P.O. Box 350
Trenton, NJ 08625-0350
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