To hear the Morris County residents attending a Board of Public Utilities hearing Tuesday on JCP&L's response following Hurricane Irene tell their stories, the company's widely-publicized communication problems are only part of the issue.
Also on Tuesday night, Bernards Township Mayor John Malay reported he had attended this week's first hearing before the BPU regarding JCP&L responses to the Aug. 28 storm and its restoration of power. He said that separate hearing, attended only by officials, drew participation from about 50 to 60 mayors "whose mood ranged from cold fury to hopping mad."
Concerns in Bernards Township
Malay said some of his local concerns about the company were its lack of communication — especially about when power might be restored to thousands of residents in Bernards and in nearby Somerset Hills households — ongoing maintenance, and priority about turning power back on. He said Ridge Oak, home to senior citizens, had been left without power for almost a week — and the township police department also had been forced to rely on generator power for five days. Ongoing maintenance of power company facilities is another concern, he said.
"They promise to take into consideration all of our comments," Malay said of JCP&L officials during his report to the Bernards Township Committee on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, many of the nearly 80 residents on hand for the BPU's second scheduled hearing regarding JCP&L, held at Tuesday's Morris County Public Safety Training Academy in Morris Plains, the power outages following the storm were not only predictable, but expected.
"It should be clear that we're dealing with more than a company that failed during the hurricane, we're dealing with a company that's been failing for years," Morris Township resident Gordon Laurig said.
The comments came during the second of two hearings scheduled to gather testimony regarding utility companies' responses within the JCP&L service area. According to BPU President Lee Solomon, the hearings are part of a series planned to enable residents from across the state to comment on the responses by all of the state's electricity distribution companies.
Many of the Morristown and Morris Township residents said electrical service frequently goes out, with no apparent reason, but what upsets them most is the company's lack of communication.
Many said they received vociemail messages reporting power woud be restored within a few hours or had been restored—messages which proved unfounded.
"It just seems to me, somewheres in JCP&L's command center, they were terribly confused," said John Grimm, of Delaware Township.
Even municipal officlals said they were unable to get helpful or accurate information from the company during the week after Hurricane Irene.
Summit Mayor Jordan Glatt outlined a series of steps he recommended the board request JCP&L to take, focused on the need for improved communication within the company, as well as with the public.
"Although it's not common for local governments to be leaders in technology, in this case, local government communicated with residents using websites, Twitter, local cable access and by going directly to impacted neighborhoods," Glatt said. "JCP&L, by comparison, used fax machines."
On Tuesday night, Malay told the Township Committee that the faxes were sometimes sent to inoperative fax machines.
Living without power in the Basking Ridge and Bernardsville area
Malay said that it was difficult in spread-out Basking Ridge — where outages had been primarily caused by downed trees — to get any answer or estimate on when power would be turned back on. More than 2,600 customers in Basking Ridge were without power for many days, and the township health department issued an advisory on how to deal with food without refrigeration in the still-summery weather. Township Health Officer Lucy Forgione finally advised residents to err on the side of caution and to throw away questionable perishables.
Meanwhile, Ridge Oak senior center in Basking Ridge center The center's main facility remained open on generator power to serve meals to elderly residents, while Malay said he lobbied all levels of officials and power company executives to have priority given to turn power back on for "at risk" senior citizens.
In Bernardsville, where more than half of households were without power, fresh drinking water was eventually distributed to the public since homes relying on private wells could not access that water supply without electricity.
However, Malay repeated on Tuesday that JCP&L advised that it was giving priority to high-population areas so the greatest number of customers would get their power back on first.
Another common focus at the Tuesday night's meeting in Morris County was on the company's maintenance of equipment and power lines, which many residents said was inadequate.
Morristown resident Jean Gray said she believes elecrical service has been declining since JCP&L was taken over by First Energy, of Ohio. She said she'd heard the company didn't trim trees around power lines for two years after the takeover, and reduced the number of linemen by 700.
"This is a very bad company—what can the individual do?" she asked. "I can't go to another power company. The system has to be updated—money has to be put into the system."
Before the three-and-a-half-hour meeting concluded, several residents made a point of praising the work by the repair crews, many of whom worked 12 to 16 hours each day, and through the Labor Day weekend to restore service.
In the week following the storm, Malay noted he had seen many repair crews from other states around Bernards Township, working on restoring power and removing trees in or near power lines.
But he added on Tuesday, it was learned that those crews had been deployed in a less than efficient manner by JCP&L.
The board's next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Bordentown, but residents can also submit comments to the board by email to board.secretarv@bDu.state.nj.us, or to: Kristi Izzo, Secretary of the Board Board of Public Utilities, P.O. Box 350, Trenton, NJ 08625-0350. Submitted comments should reference "Hurricane Irene comments -Docket Number EO11 0900543" in the subject line for emails and in the heading any written correspondence. Comments will be accepted until Oct. 31.