Power companies raced to assess damage, clear trees and begin restoring electricity to more than 6.2 million people left without electricity by super-storm Sandy, warning some blackouts may persist through next week.
As winds calmed and flood waters receded yesterday, utilities mobilized tens of thousands of workers from as far away as California and Canada to start repairs. FirstEnergy Corp. (FE) crews hovered in helicopters to trace fallen power lines in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, while Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) workers in New York used household fans to dry equipment at a 14th Street substation inundated by record floods a day earlier.
Power executives are under pressure to show they’ve learned from recent storms and can move quickly to restore electricity after Sandy battered the region with unprecedented flooding and devastation. The political backlash that followed their companies’ slow response to Hurricane Irene and an October 2011 snowstorm may be heightened if widespread blackouts persist through the U.S. presidential election Nov. 6.
“By day four, day five, patience will start to run thin,” Gregg Edeson, a Los Angeles-based utility industry consultant and executive at PA Consulting, said in an interview yesterday. “I really do think you’ll see a better coordinated effort, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take some time to get customers restored.”
Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (PEG), owner of New Jersey’s largest utility, reported crews restored about 30 percent of affected customers overnight, leaving 900,000 without power today at noon New York time today, down from 1.5 million yesterday.
Areas restored included the downtown of Newark, the state’s largest city, and Newark International Airport, utility president Ralph Larossa said today in a conference call with reporters.
That helped drop the total blackout figure to about 6.2 million from North Carolina to Maine and Michigan, according to the Energy Department’s calculations today. That’s down from a peak report of 8.2 million yesterday.
President Barack Obama, in a call with utility executives yesterday, underscored that restoring power to the millions who lost it during Sandy “is a top priority,” according to a White House statement.
“There were issues about snow in remote areas, about getting federal or state government to help in clearing the roads, to help in moving resources around the U.S.,” Southern Co. Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning, who was on the call, said today in a telephone interview from Atlanta. “Getting fuel, getting lodging, whatever state and local and federal governments can do to help.”
Power companies warned that many areas will be without power for three or four days, and some as long as 10 days, depending on location and type of damage. Some utilities declined to give a time line for repairs yet.
“We do expect to complete our damage assessment today,” said William Quinlan, senior vice president of emergency preparedness for Northeast Utilities (NU)’ Connecticut Light & Power, at a press conference this morning. “Hopefully tomorrow morning we’ll be able to communicate out our first global restoration projection.”
Con Edison cut power to an additional 160,000 customers yesterday in Brooklyn and Staten Island because of “problems on high-voltage systems.” The utility reported 624,358 New York City customers without power at 12:45 p.m. today, and another 176,861 in Westchester County north of the city.
Lights are blinking back on in storm-hit areas as utilities concentrate first on returning power to places critical to public health and safety, including hospitals, police and fire stations. Work then moves to areas with the largest number of customers affected, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based industry trade group.
Connecticut Light restored all its high-voltage transmission lines yesterday, a step that helped cut the number of customers blacked out to 475,000 from 600,000 yesterday, Quinlan said today. That number reached 355,437 shortly before 1 p.m., according to the utility website.
“Crews have their restoration priorities,” Rena Esposito, a spokeswoman for Public Service Electric & Gas said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Hospitals first, then schools and polling places are part of that priority list.”
The U.S. Energy Department estimated yesterday that more than 8.2 million homes and businesses lost power from Sandy, according to a statement posted on its website yesterday. New Jersey, New York and Connecticut were hardest hit by the storm, with 4.5 million homes and business without power at 9 a.m. today, it said in an update.
Emergency crews brought in from outside the storm area are working with Con Edison, which owns New York’s utility, to restore electricity.
About half of those without power were linked to the New York-based company’s underground delivery system and should be fully restored within three days, the utility said today in a statement.
Power lines destroyed by trees could take as many as 10 days to fix as many roads in Westchester county are still closed due to debris, John McAvoy, senior vice president for central operations for Con Edison, told reporters yesterday.
“We know exactly what the issues are with the underground system and we’re working to fix it as we speak,” McAvoy said. “But we haven’t even begun to do damage assessments for many customers, so we don’t know what we’re dealing with in terms of repairs.”
FirstEnergy, based in Akron, Ohio, said the storm cut power to 970,459 customers of its Jersey Central Power & Light utility as of about 1 p.m. today, higher than its estimates at several points yesterday.
It didn’t give a restoration forecast for New Jersey. Most power will be restored in Hanover and York counties in Pennsylvania by midnight tonight; in the counties of Boyertown, Reading, Hamburg, Easton, and Stroudsburg, some customers may be without power until Nov. 7, according to the company website.
“This wall of water that hit the state of New Jersey is not something that we could have prepared for,” Larossa, also chief operating officer at Public Service Electric & Gas Co., said yesterday on a conference call with reporters. His Newark, New Jersey-based utility provides power and gas to about three- quarters of the state’s residents.
In Atlantic City, the storm washed chunks of the boardwalk inland, hitting houses and buildings and clogging thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue.
“It was a hell of a storm,” said Charleston Williams, an employee of the Atlantic Club casino. “There’s going to be a lot of electrical work. I’ve seen a lot of substantial electrical wires down and structures blown over.”
Further in town, local residents without power were flocking to a handful of local convenience stores that were open and had supplies ranging from essentials such as water and food to treats such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and cigarettes.
“I’ve never in my life seen water like that. I was so, so scared,” Atlantic City resident Yolanda French recalled during an interview inside Food4Less on Atlantic Avenue.
French rode the storm out with her two daughters, Sydney and Porsha. Their apartment complex doesn’t have power, which the local electric company said may not be restored for 10 days. “It’s so cold in the apartment, I have to use the stove for heat,” French said.
Public Service is evaluating the damage to its flooded substations, drying out equipment and replacing it where necessary.
Repairs to transmission lines, substations and switching yards restored energy to Baywater, Linden, parts of Elizabeth and the system that feeds Hoboken, a first step in bringing lights back on in the New York suburb, Larossa said today.
The utility’s recovery efforts got off to a fast start because it had gathered 950 line workers from out of state before Sandy made landfall in Southern New Jersey Oct. 29, corporate Chief Executive Officer Ralph Izzo said on the call.
About three dozen staff at a command center at Exelon Corp. (EXC)’s Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. utility yesterday worked at dispatching 700 out-of-state line workers from as far away as Texas to restore power in a cold drizzle.
Nearly 300,000 homes and businesses in the utility’s area lost power after Sandy came ashore late Oct. 29. By noon yesterday, the number of customers stuck in the dark had fallen to about 180,000, Stephen Woerner, chief operating officer for the Baltimore utility. The number fell to 64,592 at 1 p.m. today, according to the utility website.
“Things could have been much worse,” he said.
New Jersey residents to the north weren’t as lucky. “For us, it was worse than Irene,” said Andrew Pratt, communications director for New Jersey’s Treasury department who lost power during the storm at his home in Lawrenceville, between Trenton and Princeton.
The Pratts lost power for about a half hour during Hurricane Irene and expect to be blacked out for days this time, he said.
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