Local Lessons from Sandy May Reach State Legislature

Cooperation between state and local government was critical during Sandy, and may inform the legislative response to the disaster.

As local towns struggled to communicate with PSE&G during post-Sandy recovery efforts, state officials sometimes had to step in as liaisons between municipal officials and the utility company. Now, as municipal and state government alike seek to better prepare for the next storm, the lessons learned during their cooperation may be the key to crafting the next response.

Coordination between levels of government was important, and Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn spoke regularly to State Senator Kevin O’Toole during the crisis. “We have a good relationship with the senator and his staff and we were in regular contact,” Aronsohn said. “That worked. The communication with PSE&G is another story.”

 “Communication with PSE&G left a lot to be desired,” the mayor added. “We were getting wrong information, and we weren’t getting timely information.”

After a week of frustrating and often inadequate communication between municipalities and the utility, O’Toole, along with Senator Loretta Weinberg and County Executive Kathleen Donovan, organized a meeting between local mayors and PSE&G president and chief operating officer Ralph LaRossa.

O’Toole said it was a chance “to talk about the immediate concerns that the town had, and the meeting went a long way toward trying to resolve some of the problems in Ridgewood and identify in real time what was being attended to.”

“It was an opportunity to relay and echo some of the concerns that our residents had,” agreed Aronsohn, who was one of the mayors in attendance.

The issue during the storm was that, often, municipal and utility officials had different priorities in the restoration of power. “We have to have a better line of communication from PSE&G about what’s happening in terms of the priorities in town,” O’Toole told Patch in an interview Tuesday. “The mayor has to isolate and identify what’s important immediately, whether it’s a shelter, whether it’s a hospital, whether it’s certain areas where downed wires are causing a real public hazard. He has to have a direct line to PSE&G.”

Communicating the town’s priorities was difficult due to what Aronsohn says is an inadequate communications staff at the utility to deal with statewide emergencies. The company has one regional public affairs director who, although competent, he says, cannot handle the responsibility of communication with all Bergen County municipalities during a crisis.

O’Toole hopes that going forward the state will be able to create a “better messaging service that goes [from] the observations of the mayor in town to the folks who are actually with the hard hats in the roads.”

Aronsohn speculated that might entail the utility hiring more staff to handle public affairs during states of emergency, so that it has multiple representatives each covering smaller portions of the county. “That person should be on the ground with us,” said Aronsohn, echoing the concerns that emergency management officials have voiced over coordination with PSE&G.

The Office of Emergency Management reported last week that they had requested a PSE&G official be dispatched briefly to the Village to help determine which lines were safe to work around, something they said would have helped them coordinate their recovery. “That request was denied by PSE&G,” Jeremy Kleiman, the office’s director, told the Village Council last Wednesday.

Now, as officials try to prepare for the next storm, O’Toole seeks to take the lessons learned working with Ridgewood and other municipalities to the state legislature.

The Senate Budget Committee will begin hearings on the handling of the recovery November 26. One initiative being drafted by O’Toole’s office would address maintaining power at priority facilities, even in the absence of communication between municipalities and utility officials.

The draft legislation, called the “New Jersey Residents Power Protection Act,” would require standby generators at certain buildings, among them nursing homes, EMS and fire departments, and gas stations. This would include all existing buildings, and businesses would be given a tax deduction to make up for the costs of compliance.

According to a release from the senator’s office, the law, if passed, “will help utility companies in restoring power and clearing roadways with the relief that the critical need facilities are operating.”

O’Toole said this would also remove some of the confusion in priorities between town and utility officials, such as when Mount Carmel, then Ridgewood’s only 24-hour shelter, lost power for several hours. “It would add for a little more stability in a time of crisis,” he said.

Aronsohn said that though he has not yet seen and cannot comment on the specifics of the legislation, the concept is “an excellent idea.”

The town will seek to continue working with PSE&G in making improvements for the next power outages, and Aronsohn hopes that the meetings with the utility organized by state officials in the midst of the crisis will continue now that the dust has settled. “This is the only way we learn and the only way we improve, by having real, honest conversations about what needs to be done and how to do it,” he said.

In any case, the lessons learned from the experience of municipal officials is poised to have an impact on hearings in the Senate. “It was an eye-opening experience,” O’Toole said. “We need to step back and find out what went right, what went wrong, do an assessment, and make an improvement for next time.”


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