Mayors draft action plan for future storm emergencies

Local officials enlist freeholders to hold JCP&L accountable

Staff Writer

 Mayor Adam Schneider Mayor Adam Schneider Local officials are enlisting the help of the county and state to ensure that problems encountered during the Oct. 29 superstorm are not repeated in the future.

“The mayors are bringing forth their concerns … and obviously everyone is seeing it is a mirrored image from town to town to town,” said John Curley, director of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. “I think it is a wonderful idea and I applaud all those Monmouth County mayors and public officials who have come together.”

Curley was among the local officials at a Nov. 19 summit held at the Tinton Falls Municipal Complex and attended by officials from 22 county municipalities

“Everybody had a similar story as they went around the room,” he said. “It would be all the municipalities joining with the county to request the state take action and mandate more forthrightness with the utility companies.”

The summit was moderated by Tinton Falls Mayor Michael Skudera and Middletown Mayor Anthony Fiore and attended by mayors and local officials from Aberdeen, Colts Neck, Eatontown, Fair Haven, Hazlet, Holmdel, Long Branch and West Long Branch. Also in attendance was Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13th District).

The post-storm summit included discussions that mapped out a 10-point plan to deal with weather emergencies including: improve communications with utility companies by creating an emergency action plan; establish communications with utility companies on a regional level; and provide for coordination between Jersey Central Power & Light and Verizon regarding work during power outages.

Curley said he’d like to expedite the action plan in the wake of superstorm Sandy and a nor’easter that followed on Nov. 7, both of which caused extended power in throughout the county, where JCP&L has more than 250,000 customers.

According to the JCP&L website, the two storms did more damage to infrastructure than 2011’s Hurricane Irene and late October snowstorm combined. “I think everyone would love to be able to snap a finger and help alleviate this problem,” he said. “Communication has always been a serious concern when dealing with these companies.

“The faster that we can get information to them and develop a plan and tell them what we want [the better],” he added.

Fiore said the majority of the issues in Middletown were the same as in neighboring towns.

“We are all here because we shared the same experience, and that’s because the utility company was taking two weeks, no matter how big the storm is,” he said. “The goal is to figure out what could we tell them to get this done.”

Fiore was critical of the daily conference calls between mayors across the state and JCP&L representatives regarding outages, saying communications need to be more focused on each region.

“One of my biggest pet peeves was these calls they were hosting at 4 p.m.,” he said. “We can all agree that those calls need to be regional.

“I must say, for me to give real-time information I need to know what is going on in Monmouth and Ocean,” he added. “My experience was completely different than what was happening in northwest New Jersey.”

He also said the utility company should have a method to learn about power outages without having residents call them in.

“I find it completely absurd that a customer has to call in their power outage when their whole neighborhood is out,” Fiore said. “Most people see that everybody is out and unfortunately don’t call.

“There has to be some information that the utility provides to their customers to let them know,” he added.

Prolonged power outages were a major problem in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy with every municipality in the county facing significant outages for up to two weeks.

Another issue Fiore brought up was the need for better coordination between Verizon, which owns some utility poles, and JCP&L.

“There needs to be better connectivity between JCP&L and Verizon,” he said. “I don’t care whose pole it is, you want the wires up and you want it fixed.

“Watching a crew stand there and wait for another crew to actually come is something we need to address.”

Fiore also said mayors and town officials should have a better understanding of the power grids in their towns and how many residences and other facilities substations impact.

Holmdel Mayor Patrick Impreveduto suggested JCP&L move all substations in flood-prone areas to higher ground.

He also said utility company representatives communication.

“Communication was all over the place, it wasn’t consistent,” Impreveduto said. “It kind of upset me because it put me in a bad spot.”

He also wants better enforcement of tree trimming around power lines and infrastructure improvements to power lines and poles.

Another facet of the proposed plan is to have town officials and JCP&L create priority plans for outages.

“When Middletown Lincroft Road is blocked, it impacts thousands of people,”

Fiore said. “We need … to take from municipalities what our priority streets are.”

In a Nov. 21 interview,

JCP&L spokesman Ron

Morano responded to criticism of the power company.

“We fully understand our customers’ frustration and the inconvenience of being without electricity,” he said. “We also understand the desire to provide information about when areas of customers are going to be restored to service.

“Superstorm Sandy was the worst storm in the history of JCP&L and it was also a catastrophic event for the state of New Jersey,” he added. “To restore customers to service, we put together an army of workers including 8,500 lineworkers, 1,500 forestry workers and an overall work force on the ground of more than 12,000 people.”

Morano said the company has improved communications since Hurricane Irene in 2011.

“We held daily conference calls with mayors every day with JCP&L leadership,” he said. “We communicated via social media, we are very much engaged with Twitter and Facebook.

“These are steps that are new since last year,” he added.

However, Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider was skeptical that communications would improve with JCP&L.

“If JCP&L wanted to communicate with us better, they would,” he said. “When we got phone calls the information was 48 hours old.”

Schneider went on to say he wants residents to share his frustration with the utility’s handling of the outages.

“I am going to keep my people angry,” he said. “I am going to tell people exactly what JCP&L did and didn’t do.”

Skudera said in the aftermath of the storm, Borough hall was used as a call center and was manned by volunteers from the borough.

“The best way to fix things is to come up with a solution and to work with people and to keep pressing them until they fix things,” he said. “The big thing from a communications aspect was to get everyone in the same room together.

“I think we had a little more than 10,000 calls come in to us during the storm. We tried everything we could do to be proactive to help JCP&L.”

Skudera said the volunteers helped gather information about the borough and relay it to the utility company.

“It was just humbling to see the turnout, this is your own residents helping out,” he said. “That went a long way to calm your fears and say, ‘Hey, we are working on this together.’

“We were out there communicating issues to JCP&L for the residents.”

Fiore said the township received 40,000 calls regarding power outages following the storm.

“We are not their call center,” he said. “People turn to us when they don’t get information and we need that information to pass on to our residents.

“We are there to tell them [JCP&L] what to do and at the end of the day we have to stand up and tell them what is going to impact our residents,” he added.

Skudera said the municipalities only can do so much when dealing with the utility company and they must work together to improve the reaction to storms and emergency situations.

“At a certain point this is a utility company that the towns don’t control, that we have no say in,” he said. “We are all here to say JCP&L and Verizon how do we approach this proactively next time?

“What are the things we can do for you to help us better.”

Following the summit the mayors and officials went into a closed workshop session to finalize a list of 10 action-plan items to present to JCP&L.

Skudera said the top 10 list would be submitted to the Board of Chosen Freeholders for action.