If there was one thing the state Board of Public Utilities, JCP&L's president Don Lynch, officials and the public agreed upon Monday night, it was the severity of the storm named Sandy that howled through the state on Oct. 29, not only lashing the shore but bringing power outages that lasted two weeks or more to parts of central and northern New Jersey.
But nearly all of the dozens of officials and residents from the inland counties of Somerset, Morris, Passaic and Sussex who spoke at a public input meeting held by the BPU in Basking Ridge, refused to let Jersey Central Power & Light off the hook anyway.
"For us, in Bernards Township, for the first seven days after the storm, virtually nothing happened," said township Deputy Mayor Carolyn Gaziano, one of dozens of speakers during a meeting that lasted more than three-and-a-half hours.
At that time, all major roads were blocked, schools and public buildings were among those wide swaths of the town still without power and some neighborhoods were on roads that were blocked to the extent that emergency vehicles couldn't get through, Gaziano and other township officials said.
"If someone had a heart attack or fire, there was no way to get in," Bernards Mayor Mary Pavlini said. "Going forward, we can't have situations like that again."
The state Board of Public Utilities had scheduled Monday's meeting, which began at 4 p.m. at the William Annin Middle School, as the first regional meeting in New Jersey with the intent of collecting public input on JCP&L's preparedness and response before, during and after the storm.
"The purpose of these hearings is to solicit public input," BPU president Robert Hanna said. All comments made Monday night will become part of the official record at the BPU, which is charged with regulating utilities that hold franchises in different areas of the state, he said.
Hanna also began the meeting by saying public comments concerning steps to improve JCP&L's infrastructure also would be accepted. He said other meetings are scheduled, including one on Dec. 18 in Hopatcong.
The BPU president started the meeting by saying that 2.7 million customers in New Jersey were left powerless by the storm and 17,000 out-of-state workers responded to assist. By Nov. 4, approximately 60 percent of statewide customers without power had been restored, and by nine days after the storm, that number had risen to 90 percent of JCP&L customers in New Jersey, Hanna said.
Even so, Hanna said in his view, the power company's communications with affected communities and customers "still need great, great improvement."
Among the areas that JCP&L might make improvements on in the future is prioritizing what road closures to address, partially by working more closely with county OEMs, reinstalling some wires underground and raising substations that flooded above ground, Lynch suggested.
But he added he is proud of the power company's record of bringing 1.3 million customers statewide back on line within 13 days.
Other speakers were not so complimentary.
Children reported stepping over wires to get on school buses
Ten days after the storm, David Tourville said he had watched a scene he couldn't believe was happening in America: Chester students stepping over downed wires to get onto a school bus. "We had called JCP&L about those wires," he added.
Tourville called upon the BPU to require JCP&L to "answer for all the things they didn't do." He noted that in Connecticut last year, rebates had been issued to disatisfied power company customers.
N.J. Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana, also former mayor of Wayne in Passaic County, said area customers of Public Service Electric Gas, the state's other main electric utility, "are always up and running sooner, and substantially sooner in most cases, than JCP&L customers." He called for "greater competition" that would allow JCP&L customers to potentially join PSEG's nearby territory.
Ron Bassani, of Wantage Township in Sussex County, said JCP&L customers in that area would like to consider joining the nearby Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative, which he said did an "excellent job" of restoring power after both the Irene and Sandy storms.
Hanna noted switching to a different power company would involve disenfranchising the current utility, which owns the power lines, and compensating that company for those lines and equipment.
But Lynn Donaldson, of Basking Ridge, said JCP&L should be penalized for its performance, which she said included emails and phone calls to residents telling them their power had been restored when it wasn't; better planning for a storm that was known to be coming to the area and power lines left lying on major thoroughfares.
"If you can't provide the service to the customers, then let someone in who can," Donaldson said to Lynch.
Warren Township Mayor Carolann Garafola called for a forensic analysis of JCP&L's books to see what the company has spent on infrastructure and equipment, particularly in comparison to its parent company, FirstEnergy, in Ohio. Other speakers said crew workers from out of state had noted JCP&L's equipment and infrastructure in the area were antiquated.
Garafola said Warren Township was the last area to receive power in each of the last three storms, and the information received from the power company was often "totally inaccurate."
Like other speakers, she said the power company had not followed local input for setting priorities in restoring power to facilities. "Our schools were the last to come up," she said.
Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire said JCP&L had asked for a prioritization of county roads to be reopened. He said he had named five roads, and 10 days later, three of those roads still were not open.
Bernards Township Committee Member Scott Spitzer also said the power company hadn't moved to remove, or authorize the removal, of wires that would have prevented emergency vehicles from reaching certain neighborhoods behind roads blocked by trees and/or wires. "We had situations where people's lives were at risk because that wasn't prioritized," he said.
Communication, both with customers and also with repair crews deployed in the area, was a key component of the complaints against the power company.
Despite recommendations for better communications after last year's storms, Montville Township Committee Member Scott Gallopo said he did not see a noticeable improvement since Tropical Storm Irene. Information posted on JCP&L's website was "inaccurate and incomplete," he said, and salt was added to wounds when people were told they had returned power when they didn't.
Republican State Assemblyman Jon Bramnick said he thought the power company's communications had been poor during Sandy. He said residents don't want to hear broad discussions about the severity of the storm. "They want to know where the trucks are."
Other speakers, including Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso, said crews had been "hanging around" waiting for orders on what to do next. He said the township has a staging area where crews remained for "hours and hours."
"There's only one utility that doesn't have a mobile dispatching system, and that's JCP&L," Wayne Councilwoman Lonni Ryan said.
Morristown Councilwoman Alison Deeb, of that town's fourth ward, said half of her district was without power for 11 days. She said JCP&L's field managers are trying to handle too many towns—she claimed the person assigned to her territory was trying to juggle 55 towns.
Deeb, too, said the power company's communications are not where they should be for 2012.
Lynch responded to such criticisms by saying that JCP&L is in the process of installing mobile communication units, and the installation should be completed next year, possibly by summer.
But he also added the company prefers to lean toward guaranteeing crew safety by requiring them to call in to dispatchers for live information on where it's safe to work on wires.
Other discussions at the meeting included the possibility of training certain electricians or personnel on township department of public works or offices of emergency response to authorize wires to be moved in an emergency situation.
Others looked ahead to what will happen during future storms.
Niha Limaye, of Bridgewater, said such storms can be expected to become more common during climate changes. She said JCP&L should be doing its own post-morten of its response during Sandy. "We want to understand what went wrong, and what's going to change, and what we can do to help you," she said.
She said more than 600 people have joined a local Facebook page, "JCP&L Needs to Answer."
"I don't expect this to be going on in a year or two," Basking Ridge resident Tony Otero said. He said the company needs to modernize the local power infrastructure.
However, Ami Morita, attorney with the state's Division of Rate Council, urged officials to "tread carefully" before making expensive improvements to the system she said would be passed on as rate hikes. "Let's not victimize rate payers a second time," she said.
Morita said JCP&L's rates are supposed to include funding for responses to storms, and she will look more carefully into that area.
Among those with a positive response for the power company was Lance Berkheimer, who said he lives in Basking Ridge and has a business in Stirling. He said his power was out for four days at home, and eight days at his business. However, he said JCP&L responded quickly when he had a problem with his business. "I think JCP&L did a good job," he said.
Other comments can be filed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, referring to docket no. E012111050, or by mail to Board of Public Utilities, 44 S. Clinton Ave., P.O. box 350, Trenton, 08625, according to representatives from the BPU who were at the meeting.