Getting the power back on

Linemen in New Jersey repairing damage from Hurricane Sandy and the Election Day Northeaster.

Electricity is a marvel of modern life. An argument could be made that having an available flow of electric current is one of several essential elements sustaining our 21st century lifestyles. It’s also something that you never think about until the availability of and access to the power supply is compromised and no longer available at the flip of a light switch, or the powering on of one of our multitudinous electronic devices.

Since last Tuesday, large swaths of the northeastern population corridor, mainly near New York City and sections of New Jersey, have been suffering without electricity. I use the term “suffering” because absence of electricity removes the ease and convenience of daily  life quicker than almost anything else, and sets those without power back into a time warp reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, people back then were better prepared to survive without present day “essentials” requiring electricity.

Even homeowners with generators require gasoline to run them, and given the uneven supplies of petroleum, this source of power has been sporadic at best for many residents of the greater-New York City area and significant portions of the Garden State.

It’s always convenient and surprisingly easy to ignore the suffering of others when you yourself have been spared similar circumstances. Empathy forces you to consider what it must be like for tens of thousands of fellow Americans who are now approaching the two-week mark of being without power.

Experiencing something similar nearly 15 years ago helps in the empathy department. Compounding the aftermath of Sandy has been another right-hook of frigid conditions and additional outages on top of that as Mother Nature dished out round two in the form of a winter-like Northeaster on Election Day. Right now, it’s nearly impossible for anyone, even experienced power officials, to provide clear assurances that this situation will be rectified in the next few days, possibly not even in the next week.

On Wednesday night, NPR ran a story on All Things Considered about the situation in central New Jersey. Longtime reporter Melissa Block interviewed the chief spokesperson from Jersey Central Power and Light about why so many residents remained sans electricity.

While this feature had elements of journalism, far too much of it involved Ms. Block’s own obvious lack of knowledge about the very basic process of power restoration, let alone acknowledging that this particular situation was as far away from the norm is you are going to get.  I’m going to guess Ms. Block has been living in the city long enough that power outages like this one have never crossed her mind. I’m sure that to civilized city-dwellers like Ms. Block, it seems unfathomable that even Central Jersey and it relative proximity to NYC, makes being without power the fault of the power company and there was a petulance to her questioning that seemed to expect that the company spokesperson wave a magic wand and make it all go away.

Restoring power to residents that have had their source of electricity compromised is tough work and in this situation, is often a house-to-house and block-to-block endeavor. Compounding any damage to electrical components—and this is a significant issue—are weather-related damage of trees, roadways, etc. Ron Morano from Central Power and Light indicated that Sandy “literally ripped our system apart…” with 1,100 of 1,200 circuits damaged by the hurricane. Circuits are the “pathways” by which power travels from the hubs (the substations) out to customer’s homes. Additionally, many residents of New Jersey’s seacoast have experienced significant water damage, much of it substantial enough that seawater entered their electrical panels and other home-based infrastructure requiring additional repairs and often replacements of entire panel boxes, necessitating inspections before the local power company can turn the juice back on to the individual home.

This was lost on NPR’s Block, as she struck her pose of indignation during her interview, insinuating in a not too subtle way that somehow Jersey Central Power and Light should have been better prepared with a “disaster plan.”

Not to be overly harsh on her; her behavior reminded me of similar reactions by power customers that often besieged those of us who were doing storm restoration during my 10 years of working for one of Maine’s largest electrical utilities. They’d come out like zombies after an apocalypse and intercept (and interfere with) crews making their way up a road, or around a neighborhood, questioning and then, get angry if they didn’t like the answer given that their power might not be returning in 15 seconds like they expected. Compounding these interruptions for workers is that they often are working 12+ hour days and usually in succession. After three or four days, it begins to wear on them, too. If they’re a local crew, their own homes often are without power and their families are on their own until the task of restoration has been completed.

This general ignorance of most power customers seems to get compounded during extended periods of power loss—growing exponentially as the length of time that the customer remains without their electrical lifeline increases. Finger-pointing and blaming the electrical companies and their employees becomes inevitable, if unwarranted.

My past involved working around electricity and learning the intricacies and foibles of the power grid in Maine. That experience keeps me interested and following articles and stories about electricity and in particular, the aging of our national power grid and the implications for the U.S. in not making upgrades to the system a national priority.

I sympathize and empathize with everyone who remains off the grid due to the damage rendered by Sandy and the subsequent storm on Tuesday.

Being without power for three hours sucks; being without it for three days begins to wear on your psyche. I know what it’s like to go eight or nine days because in 1998 that was our situation during the great Ice Storm of ’98. We were never so glad to see the trucks from Pennsylvania making their way up Route 9, bathed in spotlights and hearing that sweet initial click and whirring to life of appliances and lights coming on at 2:00 am. I hope many of my fellow Americans experience that this weekend.

Power companies operate on a mutual aid philosophy. Maine’s own Central Maine Power (now owned by Spanish multinational, Iberdola) has sent crews south to help out, just like New Jersey’s First Light did in Maine back in 1998.

Knowing many of these guys, and knowing the kind of tough, hard-working individuals who make linework their careers, I know that residents of New Jersey are in good hands with the 60 Maine guys on the ground, as well as the many other companies  who’ve answered the call and committed reinforcements to the cause of getting everyone back on.