“What did you know and when did you know it?”
In something that sounded like a scene straight out of Watergate, Freeholder Bill O’Dea lashed out at PSE&G about what the company knew before Superstorm Sandy and why the power company did not warn public officials about the severity of the power impacts.
Seeking answers and proposing a resolution that would hold power companies to a 24-hour restoration timeline or face increased penalties, the freeholders recently questioned Richard Dwyer, PSE&G public affairs manager, about what caused the outages that crippled portions of the Hudson County for nearly nine days.
“Was there a particular substation that caused this?” asked Freeholder Chairman Eliu Rivera.
“The main cause of the outage was Superstorm Sandy,” Dwyer replied, “and the surge that came up the Hackensack River, the Hudson River through the Kill Van Kull.”
Dwyer said storms over the last two years had significant impact on the company’s customers, starting with a storm in 2010 that had blacked out more than 400,000 customers, the most significant impact in the company’s 100-year-plus history.
“A year later with Hurricane Irene, over 800,000 customers lost power,” Dwyer said.
But Superstorm Sandy dwarfed even that with more than 1.7 million customers losing power.
“But even with that many customers losing power, we restored over a million in three days.” – Richard Dwyer
Freeholder Bill O’Dea, however, questioned the company, asking that why, if PSE&G had anticipated these outages, hadn’t it notified local officials so that cities and the county were better prepared.
“We could have brought in more food or generators, and might have evacuated some of our seniors,” O’Dea said.
Dwyer argued that the storm was no secret and that news stations had informed the public and public officials that the storm was going to have significant impacts.
O’Dea then asked why PSE&G had not turned off some of the power stations the way New York City had in order to restore power more quickly.
Dwyer said PSE&G had powered down some of the stations, something O’Dea disputed.
In a statement issued later, Dwyer said, “Restoration plans following outages are designed to get power back on to the most people in the shortest time. Crews rely on a process recognized as an industry-standard best to get power back on as quickly as possible. Hospitals, police departments, fire stations and other public health and safety facilities are priority number one. After critical facilities are restored, the order in which repairs are made follows the path that electricity takes as it comes from the power plants to the customer. In summary, restoration crews begin with primary lines that can restore power to perhaps thousands of people. Then they move to lateral lines that can affect hundreds; secondary lines that affect dozens; and finally to service drops at individual homes. This is why homes in the same neighborhoods can be restored at different times.”
Early reports under estimated the financial impact of the damage to the county where vehicles, buildings and other facilities was a total of about $7.7 million. The Hudson County Corrections facility had about $1.2 million in damage and the proposed headquarters of the Office of Emergency Management had about $2.4 million in damages.
Power was an issue countywide. The county had sought to obtain as many as 26 generators for use in Hoboken and Jersey City, but not all 26 were provided, the freeholders were told in a report. The army corps of engineers evaluated a building, and then called back, often causing a delay in getting the generators to a building. Hoboken got about five generators from the county.
During the height of the storm, Hudson County had 16 shelters open in nine municipalities housing more than 987 people. Three mobile kitchens operated, one each in Hoboken, Bayonne and Jersey City. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in four municipalities: Jersey City, Hoboken, Guttenberg and West New York. Three FEMA centers opened, one each in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne. There were daily briefings with mayors and other officials via conference calls to provide updates.
Harold Demeiller, director of the county department of roads and public property, said his department started to prepare for the storm the Friday before it hit by holding a staff meeting then and again on Sunday.
“Our first effort was to move the transcend operation and buses up to Brennan Court House because we thought that was the highest point available to us, so that transcend could continue to operate during the event,” he said. “Transcend operated into Monday helping to move people to shelters where requests were made. We pulled transcend off the road around 4 p.m. on Monday when the winds had reached 40 miles an hour at sustained peak. At that point the [Hudson County] Improvement Authority took over transportation.”
But after the storm on Tuesday, Transcend resumed its operations, and all dialysis, chemotherapy and radiation appointments were kept for people who sought transportation to doctor’s appointments.
The first in a series of properties the county was seeking to purchase was snapped up by a private company in a sheriff’s foreclosure sale before the county made an offer, raising questions as to why the freeholders were not notified about the sale.
The property is on Newark Avenue along a narrow alley, and the county hoped to widen the alley to extend Central Avenue from where it currently ends to two blocks north. It was purchased for the bargain price of $350,000 just as the county was getting an assessment that said the property – with a dilapidated four story building the county proposed to knock down – was valued at $650,000.
Freeholders learned that the property would be valued significantly higher if the building was in better condition.
In what some other freeholders thought might have been a mistake, O’Dea pushed to have the purchase put off, saying that with the county’s proposed expenditures to deal with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the county needed the money elsewhere.
“Once we start purchasing these properties, we won’t be able to stop,” O’Dea said.
While the freeholders had proposed to purchase the property for the road extension, Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli has requested the property be purchased for use as parking lot to accommodate jurors who currently have few options to park in that area.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.