Even the Governor couldn’t get clear answers from JCP & L about the power outages in his own home.
“The general response was that you will be back on duty on Tuesday,” Governor Phil Murphy said during his last coronavirus briefing in Trenton on Friday.
Electricity at Murphy’s Middletown home was restored around 9:30 p.m. Thursday night.
But if the governor can’t get an answer, what about the rest of us?
Murphy said that while most of the 1.4 million people who lost power due to Tropical Storm Isaias are back online, some 310,000 customers are still in the dark – and two-thirds of those customers are at JCP & L.
He said communication is part of the problem and residents “need to have a clear and realistic idea of what it looks like”.
Storm after storm, for more than a decade, JCP & L has been criticized for a lack of communication with customers on food restoration. It is no different for this storm. The mayors are furious. Hunterdon County officials are seething.
And the utility admits it could do better.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” JCP & L spokesperson Cliff Cole said. “Right now the information is there for people (on the JCP & L website), but maybe we could consider exploring it and making it more consistent with specific cities and counties. This is something we could consider doing.
Complaints about state utility companies – and more specifically JCP & L – are not new.
During Hurricane Sandy, 2.7 million utility customers lost power at the height of the storm and it took more than two weeks to fully restore power.
This follows Hurricane Irene, in which nearly 930,000 homes and businesses lost power, some for more than a week in August 2011.
In 2014, PSE & G, the state’s largest utility, obtained Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approval for a $ 1.2 billion infrastructure upgrade, while JCP & L said he would invest more than $ 250 million to avoid blackouts.
Yet in March 2018, after consecutive nor’easters, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses went without power for 11 days, Murphy called for a state investigation.
The State Board of Public Utilities report, released in May 2018, said JCP & L needs to improve communications with its customers and response to storms.
Customers had complained in public hearings that out-of-state customer service representatives did not understand how devastating storms were and that they could not track where crews had been deployed.
Cole, the spokesperson for JCP & L, said all of the company’s customer call centers are now located in New Jersey. But complaints about communication persist.
NO COMMUNICATION, NO ANSWERS
It’s the height of frustration for people with refrigerators full of rotten food, no air conditioning, and limited internet connection as more people than ever try to work from home.
For some, the stakes are higher.
Karin Abromaitis, of Quakertown, said on Friday that she had been without power since Tuesday. She said she had an adult daughter with ALS who relies on multiple technologies and electrical machines.
“We have concocted an interesting way of dealing. Kind of a cross between Swiss Family Robinson and Little House on the Prairie, ”Abromaitis said.
Katlyn Myrick from Belmar said she has also been without power since Tuesday. As a diabetic, she has medications that must be refrigerated. She said she started with ice cream in the sink, but it didn’t last long.
“I slept from house to house and in hotels where I transported my medications,” Myrick said. “I have family who live in Mercer County that will let me stay with them tonight, but I’m sick of it. I am absolutely exhausted and stressed.
Christian Colabelli, who said he lost several hundred dollars in food during a power outage, said the outages made it difficult to work from home.
“I actually went to my uncle’s in Freehold to work because he still had power on Tuesday,” Colabelli said. “However, he got a message shortly after I left at 7:30 pm saying he would lose the power of JCP & L again. There was no explanation. He still has not received power.
“Sandy should have been a blatant reminder to find a path to effective food restoration,” he added.
Kimberly Sautner of Keansburg is no stranger to storms wreaking havoc and destroying her home.
Tuesday’s storm powered down her home again and her husband immediately reported the issue to JCP & L, she said. But talking after conversation left Sautner lost.
She spoke to several supervisors to try to find out when the power would return, but no one had any answers.
“She basically said, ‘I don’t know anything,’” Sautner said of the supervisor she spoke to on Friday. “She’s supposed to be the supervisor’s supervisor.”
The family are relying on a portable generator that costs $ 50 to $ 60 in gasoline each day, Sautner said.
WHY DOES IT CONTINUE TO HAPPEN?
The food restoration game is tough in New Jersey because of overhead power lines and over 912 million trees.
Critics have said JCP & L is at a disadvantage because it is based in Ohio, but the company says that’s not a problem.
JCP & L president Jim Fakult told a press conference on Friday afternoon that the company has more than 8,000 employees from JCP & L, other First Energy companies and partner utilities working 24 24 hours to restore power to approximately 221,000 JCP & L customers.
He said service had been restored for about 566,000 JCP & L customers – more than 72% of the 788,000 customers affected by the storm.
Company spokesperson Cole said JCP & L improved communications after Sandy, both with customers and elected officials.
He said customers can get information about outages on his website, on social media and through text messages that customers can sign up for.
“This may not be the information they want, as the restore may take a few days,” he said.
On the general message that customers will get their food back on or off by Tuesday evening, Cole said as the restoration continues, JCP & L is able to provide customers with more specific information.
“We said (Thursday) that 85% of the 1.1 million customers would be restored by 11:30 am Friday night,” Cole said. “The remaining 15% will be no later than Tuesday at 11:30 pm”
He also said that when customers see crews outside waiting in trucks but don’t appear to be working, they should know that clearing trees or resetting cables “is not the end of the process. “.
“People who sit and wait for their orders are waiting to recharge their batteries safely. If we send them elsewhere, they should come back, ”Cole said.
BPU spokesman Peter Petetzman said some of the outages, particularly in areas served by JCP & L, are “extremely difficult to resolve given the location of these customers. A large part of JCP & L’s territory is heavily forested and in a rural area. In particular, many felled trees falling on power lines and cutting down poles are a major obstacle to restoring power. “
The BPU said it would not have a tally of complaints about the state’s utility responses to the outage until early next week.
Critics say there isn’t much incentive for a utility to be better prepared to deal with the aftermath of a storm.
In 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie has proposed tougher penalties if utilities fail their customers in storms like Irene. He wanted to increase the fine for failing to respond adequately to breakdowns from $ 100 per day to $ 25,000 per day.
It never happened.
When asked if providers should be fined daily when service is not restored, Murphy said he was unsure and noted there was a flash flood warning until Friday evening, which could prevent some repairs.
“We continue to push our utilities hard,” Murphy said, and he agreed that JCP & L “stands out” when it comes to powerless customers.
“Come on guys. We have to revive the people and take back power, ”the governor said.
The BPU said it had new protocols in place after Sandy and the winter storms of 2018.
“For example, JCP & L needed to improve its post-storm damage assessment, the effectiveness of its storm management, vegetation management and customer service and communication, among other recommendations,” said Peretzman. “The Board is also continuously reviewing storm response from all utilities to determine where protocols need to be improved.”
Earlier this week, State Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, called for a special legislative session to address the issue.
“There has been a lot of talk about investing in our power grid infrastructure,” said Bramnick, a possible Republican candidate for governor next year. “It’s time to move on.”
Murphy said on Friday there would be “a post-mortem” on the performance of power companies.
NJ Advance Media Staff Editors Brent Johnson and Ted Sherman contributed to this report.
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Rodrigo Torrejon can be reached at [email protected].
Karin Price Mueller can be contacted at [email protected].