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Summit Residents Vent Outrage at JCP&L Response to Superstorm Sandy, But Also Suggest Several Options to Better Prepare for Future

Bob Faszczewski

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 • 6:59am

SUMMIT, NJ—While Summit residents certainly are extremely unhappy at the response of Jersey Central Power & Light Company’s handling of power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy during the past two weeks, they also believe better planning at all levels can make future such calamities go much more smoothly.

Summit’s Common Council invited comments from their citizens at Monday’s governing body session and asked county officials to give their take on storm response in person at the session.

Attending from Union County were Freeholder Chairman Alexander Mirabella and county public safety director, Andrew Moran.

Council President Richard Madden called the past two weeks “horrendous,” noting although the utility was faced with a 75-year-old aging infrastructure aggravated by Mother Nature, the situation was made worse by poor reporting and communication on the part of JCP&L.

Although Mirabella said the worst—a hurricane compounded by a nor-easter—was somewhat offset by the best---exemplified by people around the county reaching out to help each other.

He noted mayors from around Union County were able to participate in conference calls with officials of both JCP&L and Public Service Electric & Gas Company every day during the storm, while the county provided fuel pumps and gasoline to local communities, around-the-clock tree trimming, a regional shelter in Cranford and Meals on Wheels and other feeding programs.

The freeholder director also noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has opened a center at the Chisholm Community Center in Springfield where residents can apply for compensation for storm losses and FEMA expects to open other area centers shortly.

He added residents also can call 1-800-621-3362 or log onto www.disasterassistance.gov for further information.

In addition, he said, the county has received a U.S. Labor Department grant that will enable it to provide jobs in cleaning up after the storm to unemployed county residents.

Moran added while the situation was terrible the county did learn things from Hurricane Irene and last October’s storm that it was able to apply in dealing with Sandy.

In addition to redundant systems, he said, the county also had a battery backup based in Mountainside. He also commended the county hazardous materials unit for its speedy response in moving from Cranford to the Rahway Police Headquarters that was abandoned after it became flooded.

The county provided 60 portable lights to replaced downed traffic signals around the area, obtained a donation of 16,000 gallons of diesel fuel from Phillips Petroleum and county police backed up local police with security while also providing transportation of residents to shelters, Moran noted.

City Administrator Chris Cotter noted that, at the height of the storm, 9,000 Summit customers were without power. That number, he said, was reduced to two by Monday night’s meeting.

He commended members of the city’s emergency management team, including Mayor Ellen Dickson and representatives of the police and fire departments, first aid squad, department of public works, Red Cross and local businesses for moving the city from mitigation to response to recovery.

However, Cotter said, 440 incidents were reported and 225 trees were removed from various properties by local forces.

Calvary Episcopal Church responded by providing three free meals a day, according to the administrator, while warming and charging centers were provided in such facilities as the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School, The Connection and the Summit YMCA.

Although city officials were in daily contact with JCP&L, the administrator said, the information the utility provided often lacked specificity about locations of outages and restorations and did not offer sufficient facts about when power would be restored.

While he praised the response of city officials and volunteers, resident Henry Bassman of Huntley Road said the storms of last October should have provided a warning that more of citywide coordination was required.

He called for equipping every school with a generator, devising formal feeding plans for those displaced from their homes by outages and having medical personnel on call.

Bassman also said the middle school shelter should have served hot meals and the city possibly should hire an expert to help it plan for future catastrophes. He volunteered to help in the planning effort.

Madison, according to some of the residents who spoke on Monday, had much less extended outages than Summit. They suggested that might be due to the fact that the borough has its own electrical utility.

Dickson responded that while a community-run electrical utility sounded like a good idea Madison’s may have been “grandfathered” in and state law probably no longer allowed this option.

While one resident at Monday’s meeting said he should be taken as “the voice of people who are not happy,” another complained he and his family received no information during either of last year’s storms and none during Sandy. He attributed it to a lack of leadership in the city.

However, Samantha Hickman of Oak Ridge Road said there was an improvement in the city’s response this month over last year, the city website was updated more quickly and the city removed trees more rapidly than during last October’s storms.

She added however that the city’s “public service” areas were not up and running quickly enough, citing the fact that it took a week to establish warming centers and shelters in the YMCA and Connections.

Hickman called the JCP&L call centers “useless” and said out-of-state crews lashed together the same poles that lashed together during last year’s storms.

Another resident said he was treated rudely by at least three JCP&L operators. He also said he did not want to see Summit become a “generator city” because a majority of residents were using generators rather than having their power restored quickly.

Guy Haselmann of Ruthven Place asked the utility why its website showed Summit with the lowest percentages of residences with their power restored and was not able to get an answer.

He said although the council was working on the problems, the people wanted to know what the governing body was learning. He also said many residents were frustrated because they didn’t see council members in the central business district during the power outages.

Another resident, who owns a business in Millburn, said JCP&L was “scamming” local residents and officials in Millburn “ripped into” the utility’s officials much more than Summit officials.

Dickson replied she had made clear during her conference calls with JCP&L Chief Executive Officer Donald Lynch that she thought the utility’s response has resulted from a failure of management.

She added although he promised street-specific restoration information by last Friday that information was not provided until this Sunday or Monday.

Resident Anton Evers, however, said residents should have learned from last year’s storms to be more prepared. He noted he purchased a generator after last October’s incidents.

Red Cross Executive Director Christy Hodde praised Councilman Robert Rubino and Dickson for helping her organization respond to resident needs.

She added the Red Cross was able to “partner” with a number of community organizations in accomplishing its mission, but even her organization felt “paralyzed” at times by the storm.

Another resident said Summit citizens did not realize that one councilman heads security for a top investment firm, another runs several medical clinics and one is an attorney.

She said they had to attend to their full-time jobs in addition to responding to resident needs in the storm.

Cotter said in December he would have a preliminary response about what local resources could be better employed in a catastrophe. He added, however, the more complicated issues, such as who would provide electric power to Summit residents in the future, would require a longer time for a response.

Although Dickson advocated a town-hall-type meeting on Tuesday, November 27, at 7:30 pm in City Hall, Madden and other council members said they would rather have more definite plans to present prior to another public forum.

It was uncertain after Monday’s council meeting whether Dickson’s meeting would be held.

Among official actions at Monday’s meeting, the governing body introduced an ordinance giving its consent to establishment of a combined emergency dispatch service in partnership with New Providence.

The public hearing and possible final adoption of that ordinance is scheduled for Dec. 4.

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