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New Jersey Residents Suffer Cold and Dark as Many Still Lack Power After Storms

November 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The homes of some New Jersey residents have been without power or heat more than 10 days after superstorm Sandy struck. And even with support from out-of-state utility workers untangling downed lines, erecting polls, and repairing the grid, many may remain in the dark for days to come. Special correspondent Rick Karr reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eleven days after the first of the storms that hit the Northeast, nearly 400,000 homes and businesses on the Eastern Seaboard, primarily in New York and New Jersey, are still without power, and frustration with local utility companies grows.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo captured that sentiment yesterday when he blasted their response.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D-N.Y.: The longer it goes on, it’s worse. And this compounds itself. And it’s one thing to ask people to be inconvenienced for two or three days. It’s one thing to say, well, it is a terrible storm, we weren’t ready. But this is just — it is unacceptable. And it is getting worse because people’s suffering is worse. That’s why it’s more frustrating the longer it goes on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie pledged to have all power restored by Sunday.

Utility crews are scrambling to make that happen, as special correspondent Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR: Amy Owens has started most evenings since the storm blasted past her home in Glen Ridge, N.J., with an old-fashioned ritual. She starts a fire. Because, when we visited, it was the only way she could heat her home.

AMY OWENS, New Jersey resident: I think we’re all at the breaking point now. We know that there’s widespread outages. And we know that people lost their homes. So, we’re certainly trying to keep that into perspective.

But I think that what people want is just some real information.

RICK KARR: Information from her local utility company.

AMY OWENS: We don’t hear anything from PSE&G. We do see crews all over, but they won’t talk to you. They won’t tell you. And I really haven’t seen any of them doing any physical work, just sort of walking around, looking at power lines.

RICK KARR: Earlier in the day, in a blacked-out neighborhood in South Orange, an employee of the biggest electric company in New Jersey said that’s all a matter of perception.

BOB LOBBREGT, Public Service Electric & Gas: the customers don’t realize that the trucks are out here. They don’t see them.

RICK KARR: Bob Lobbregt is a safety supervisor for the utility company.

BOB LOBBREGT: The main drags that they take, the damage may not be on. We may be on a side street or deep in the rear of the houses putting the wires back up. So, we are out there.

RICK KARR: Immediately after the storm, utility crews rushed to the transmission lines that are the backbone of the electrical network and the switching stations and substations that are its hubs. Failures in those out-of-the-way places can knock tens of thousands of homes off the grid.

CHARLES SANCRATTI, Florida Power & Light: What you do is you shoot for the largest numbers first. You send your resources into an area and you try to get most bang for the buck.

And, typically, as the numbers dwindle down to the single customer, that is usually the folks that get put on towards the tail end.

RICK KARR: Charles Sancratti is one of hundreds of Florida Power & Light employees who’d brought their expertise in post-hurricane cleanup up the East Coast as the storm approached.

He and his crew were working on one of those smaller jobs in South Orange, where a utility pole had snapped in half and plunged more than a dozen homes into darkness.

CHARLES SANCRATTI: Access to these lines quite difficult, cutting through people’s backyards. You may come in one and then you have cross four other yards just to get to your job site.

RICK KARR: Workers had to start by clearing away tree growth, then driving in specialized equipment, then dragging a brand-new one-ton utility pole up from the street.


Next, they had to remove the stump of the old pole, enlarge the hole in the ground, and erect the new pole. And even then, they had hours more work left to do, transferring the tangle of wires from the broken pole to the new one.

The Florida workers were among more than 4,000 out-of-staters who’d come to help New Jersey’s utility make storm repairs. Utility companies have a mutual-assistance pact, which has in the past drawn employees of the big New Jersey utility to the GulfCoast.

This is an opportunity to pay back that debt. Hundreds of utility trucks crowded the parking lots around a suburban shopping malls. They’d driven in not just from Florida, but also Michigan, Virginia, Arkansas, and 16 other states.

They brought tools, fuel, even spare utility poles.

Early every morning, the workers show up for another 16-hour day; dispatchers distribute their marching orders; and then the trucks roll out for destinations around New Jersey. It’s almost like a military operation.

RALPH GRANT, Florida Power & Light: You’re moving a small army of guys from, some of them from as far south of Miami or south of Miami all the way up to New Jersey. That is a logistical accomplishment in itself.

RICK KARR: Ralph Grant of Florida Power & Light came to New Jersey to supervise operations around the company’s high-tech mobile command center. His company, naturally, has a lot of experience dealing with hurricanes.

But snowstorms like the one that blanketed the Northeast on Wednesday and knocked out power for an additional 20,000 New Jersey homes and businesses are brand-new to some of the company’s workers.

RALPH GRANT: It wasn’t quite what we expected when we came up for hurricane restoration.

RICK KARR: All of the utility workers we spoke to said it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling once they have managed to restore power to customers who’ve been in the dark for days. The money is good, they say, but they’re also in it for the challenge and the sense of accomplishment.

Florida Power’s Ralph Grant says big jobs like this are also enjoyable.

RALPH GRANT: It’s a challenge to do it and do it safely and do it expediently for the — for PSE&G. But it is fun.

RICK KARR: Blacked-out New Jersey utility customer Amy Owens says power outages used to be, if not fun, at least a bit romantic, that is, the first time she lost her power for more than a week.

AMY OWENS: One year ago — this is our anniversary storm. It’s like the anniversary storm. We were without power on this block for eight days.

RICK KARR: Owens says she’s starting to think of mega-storms, and the ensuing blackouts, as the new normal. She’s a real estate agent, and she says she’s encouraging her clients to make provisions for future power outages.

AMY OWENS: I think people will start putting the $10,000 to $15,000 into a generation system, so that they — they’re never without power, so they don’t have to depend on PSE&G or whoever their carrier is.

RICK KARR: For the first night since the storm, Amy Owens won’t have to sit in the dark by a fire tonight. Her electric company, PSE&G started, restored her power this afternoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama will go to New York on Thursday to see firsthand the recovery efforts there. He visited hard-hit areas along New Jersey’s coastline last week.