Irate over Irene

Local officials, residents air frustrations with JCP&L during BPU meeting

Staff Writer

When it came to Jersey Central Power & Light Co.’s response to Hurricane Irene at a Sept. 26 Board of Public Utilities meeting, the same types of words kept coming up: Unacceptable. Terrible. A joke.

State legislators, municipal officials and residents from across the region let JCP&L have it during the nearly twoand a-half-hour-long hearing at the Monmouth County Library Headquarters in Manalapan, smashing the power company’s preparations for and response to Hurricane Irene.

Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik went so far as to say that JCP&L President Don Lynch should be fired due to the company’s effort surrounding the Aug. 27-28 storm.

“My residents were screaming, and you know what? They had every right to scream,” Hornik said. “There was a complete lack of coordination, a complete lack of communication, a complete lack of resources necessary on the ground to fix this problem. … Somebody failed.” BPU President Lee Solomon said the local public hearing, along with others across the state, would help to gather evidence to see if the board would hold its own evidentiary hearings to determine what steps need to be taken to fix problems for the future.

“We have a whole range of options open to us— things we can do relatively quickly and things that could take more time — from regulatory changes, protocols, best practices, and right up to and including, if necessary, sanctions,” Solomon said.

JCP&L’s communications efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene came under fire throughout the meeting.

StateAssemblywomanAmy Handlin (R-Monmouth/Middlesex) said that while some of the JCP&L customer service representatives were courteous, others were “rude and insensitive,” providing information that was “hopelessly outdated” or false.

Freehold Borough resident Joyce Stapleton said she was without power for several days after the storm and could not get through to a representative to find out more information about the outage .“ It was nice speaking to a recorded message,” she said.

Mayors lamented the lack of information provided by JCP&L about how many of their residents were without power and where they were located.

Holmdel Mayor Pat Impreveduto said he was supposed to have a liaison from JCP&L to call during and after the storm.

“Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found,” Impreveduto said.

He said that residents of Holmdel also received automated phone calls telling them their power was back on when it was not.

Freehold Borough Council President George Schnurr said that a number of senior housing facilities in town were left without power. JCP&L called the borough at one point to tell them that the power at Hudson Manor would be back on within an hour.

“Our response to them was that the power’s been on for three hours,” Schnurr said.

Several residents and officials also questioned whether JCP&L was using outdated infrastructure, suggesting that this contributed to the widespread power outages. Schnurr said he believes that decades-old power lines and equipment had something to do with the outages in Freehold Borough.

Stapleton, who has lived in Freehold for 26 years, said that her block lost power eight times in 2010 and has had problems with outages for decades.

“Hurricane Irene was just the straw that broke the camel’s back after 26 years,” she said .

Hornik said the power company needs to make investments in capital infrastructure, but that it must do so without raising rates on consumers.

“This was a Category 1 hurricane that came through here,” Hornik said. “God forbid we ever have a Category 3 or 4. We would be out for months if this company is asked to respond.”

Handlin said that she, too, wanted assurance that repair costs incurred by JCP&L after Irene aren’t passed along to the customers.

“They’ve already suffered enough,” Handlin said. “People shouldn’t be asked to pay higher electricity rates for the pleasure of not having electricity out for a week.”

Though most set out to criticize JCP&L, Old Bridge Emergency Management Coordinator Dominic Cicio said he couldn’t believe some of the testimony at the hearing. He said that proper planning and a good community spirit of neighbors helping neighbors without power helped the township weather the power outages.

“I can pick up my phone right now and call my JCP&L guy and he will answer the phone,” Cicio said to catcalls from the crowd. “Communication with JCP&L was fantastic. … We were able to reach out, and they were able to reach out to us.”

He said that with constant talk of major disasters, individual residents need to be better prepared for storms when they come.

“Four days without electric? Come on,” Cicio said. “If you can’t survive four days without electric, look at your individual planning.”

Looking to the future, in addition to communication improvements, state Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (RMonmouth) said that thought needs to be given to prioritizing customers in restoring power. In Colts Neck and Millstone, Casagrande said, many homeowners rely on electricity to power their wells. As such, when the power goes out, she said, so does the ability to flush the toilet or take a shower.

Ron Morano, a senior public relations representative for JCP&L, said after the meeting that a number of JCP&L top officials attended the hearing and that the company will work to resolve issues encountered with Hurricane Irene.

“We are very concerned and very interested in hearing what our customers and our elected officials and legislators have to say,” Morano said. “We are fully engaged in the process with the BPU and are determined to work on the areas that are being addressed.