Most of the few dozen local officials and residents who attended a state hearing on Orange & Rockland’s response to Hurricane Sandy Wednesday afternoon in Ramsey wanted answers to the same questions: Why wasn’t the utility able to tell customers when power would be restored? Why did the restoration effort seem so haphazard? Does O&R give priority to customers in New York over those in New Jersey?
Franklin Lakes Mayor Frank Bivona went so far as to call O&R’s response to the storm “deplorable.” He told representatives he was treated disrespectfully by O&R employees when trying to get information from them during the storm, and never received the answers he was looking for.
“O&R works for us, and if I took a poll in Franklin Lakes right now [and we were] able to, we’d fire you,” he said.
O&R President Bill Longhi said the utility's inaccurate restoration estimates that confounded public officials and residents in the storm's aftermath were due to the decentralized management approach O&R took with the hundreds of in-house and contracted crews responding to Hurricane Sandy.
Usually, the utility responds to resident reports of specific outages, but because of the damage to O&R’s transmission systems and substations, Longhi said they took a "rebuild approach." The utility spent the first few days after the storm rebuilding its systems, then sent “self-sufficient” crews to the substations to assess the damage and implement fixes, he said.
While the method led to quicker restoration times and was “significantly more efficient than dispatching crews,” Longhi said a side-effect of the method was the inability to accurately estimate when power would be restored to specific neighborhoods.
Many at the hearing spoke of feeling ignored by O&R, which serves only about 63,000 of its 300,000 customers in New Jersey — the rest are in New York.
“We were told schools, police departments and fire departments were a priority, and [in Ramsey] they were all out for about a week,” Ramsey Councilman Ken Tyburczy said. “[Residents] would check the website, and it would give an estimated restoration time of Nov. 11, then the 7th, then the 3rd, and [power] actually came back on the 10th. It left your customers wondering ‘What the heck are you folks doing?’”
“We really felt like the stepchild,” Ramsey resident Julie O’Brien, one of the few private residents who spoke at the hearing, said. O’Brien also pointed out that the daily online restoration estimates provided by the Board of Public Utilities for utilities throughout the state did not include O&R.
“Just how much attention does [a utility] pay to towns in a county that’s in a state that’s outside the majority of its service area?” Wyckoff resident Eugene Lipkowitz asked. “Should Orange & Rockland sell off its New Jersey operations to someone who would operate entirely in the state of New Jersey?”
Most of the 10 or so public officials that spoke at the hearing complained of a lack of communication, or the spread of misinformation by O&R employees and crews.
Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet pointed to communication methods used in the township to get information to residents, like the Nixle text message alerts, Swiftreach calls to residents, and an .
“How can [Mahwah’s] communication system be so much better than that of a multi-million dollar company?” he asked O&R officials. “I think this was more of a catastrophe than it needed to be.”
Wyckoff Mayor Chris DePhillips urged the BPU to conduct a complete performance review of all of the utilities that operate in the state.
“Give them a grade, tell them what worked and what didn’t,” he said.
BPU representatives said Wednesday’s meeting was part of the post-storm analysis conducted by the state. “It is about us listening to your feedback,” BPU Commissioner Robert Hanna said.
Longhi said O&R will continue to reach out to municipalities for feedback on the storm recovery, and will use the comments made Wednesday to restructure several aspects of the company to improve responses to future storms.