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Sandy Lessons Should Steer Rebuilding Effort

Politicians have to make tough—perhaps expensive—decisions and need to start taking action.

It’s been three weeks since Superstorm Sandy blew through New Jersey, and past time to begin figuring out how to minimize losses the next time.

Some solutions involve building; some, doing the opposite.

Just as the attacks of Sept. 11 brought talk of rebuilding, there have been vows to restore the shore back to Oct. 28, 2012, as if nothing had happened. That would be a huge and costly mistake.

It is not politically correct to say that at least some of what was destroyed should not be rebuilt. But it’s the truth.

Barrier islands are aptly named. They are supposed to serve as barriers for the shoreline. When a major storm like Sandy or Irene hits, they will take the brunt of it and provide some measure of protection for the mainland. They are great places to stretch your toes in the sand and jump the waves on a nice summer day, beautiful and inspiring. But they should not be places where people live year round, at least not if taxpayers—who provide the money the Federal Emergency Management Agency doles out—have to pay to compensate for storm-related losses.

And it’s not just barrier islands that need a break from development, but other places at the shore and inland that continually flood.

Some still refuse to recognize that human activity is altering the environment, but it seems clear that climate change is sending stronger and stranger weather more frequently. Sandy was the third storm to devastate at least portions of New Jersey in little more than a year. For those in the Passaic River Basin or along the Raritan River, it seems like a 100-year flood comes every five years, at most.

Rebuilding huge multi-million dollar homes on a spit on land only wide enough for two streets is not smart. These are places where ocean and bay deliver a one-two punch. Sandy cut two channels across Mantoloking, links the waters and breaking the wealthy community into thirds.

Nature does what it will. People are virtually powerless to stop the waters and the winds.

In much of non-coastal New Jersey, it was the latter that hurt, uprooting or damaging more than 100,000 trees.

That left more than 2 million customers—more than half the state—without power, hundreds of thousands of them for more than a week. The lights didn’t go on in parts of Long Valley for 14 days. As of Saturday night, according to JCP&L’s website, several hundred remained without power, mostly at the shore, but also a few stragglers in places like Hopatcong and Morris Township.

It was only two months ago that state officials announced the findings of a review of utilities’ handling of Irene and the Halloween snowstorm that followed, almost a year to the day before Sandy hit. Company officials said they had learned their lessons. Few would agree.

By all accounts, Sandy was the fiercest storm to make landfall here. Despite living under very trying circumstances—some with neither power for water, septic or stove nor fireplace for heat—some people were willing to give the utilities the benefit of the doubt. Gov. Chris Christie did.

Last year, the utilities were criticized for not having enough crews ready to handle storm damage. This time, JCP&L boasted that it had moved workers—including some from five other states and Canada—into position, ready to start restoration as soon as it was safe. PSE&G made similar pronouncements about its readiness, boasting it has spent $28 million pruning trees over the last year among other actions to help weather the storm.

Yet everyone knows what happened.

To its credit, PSE&G posted updates several times a day about restorations on its website—20 percent of 1.4 million who had been out had their electricity restored within 24 hours of the storm making landfall—and quickly made ice and water available to customers in several locations.

It took JCP&L an additional 24 hours to announce the availability of ice and water and then in only two locations despite having more than 1 million—more than 90 percent of its customers—powerless in 10 counties. And it wasn’t until Halloween that any restorations were announced.

Two weeks later, restorations were continuing and both local officials and the public were complaining about the length of time it was taking and the quality of information they were getting.

So frustrated are some that a group of people have filed a lawsuit against JCP&L for its response. Communities are talking about developing a private utility company like Butler Electric or Madison Electric instead of using Ohio-based First Energy, JCP&L's parent company. Others have started online petitions seeking to switch to PSE&G. People have started five anti-JCP&L Facebook pages.

It is clear that New Jersey’s utilities are still not doing what is necessary despite strong chiding following last year’s storm responses.

The companies need to do a much better job at tree pruning: Clear the lines and replace uprooted trees only with smaller, slower-growing varieties.

They need to communicate better. The restoration process remains a frustrating mystery to the average customer—why are my neighbor’s lights on but mine aren’t? Telling people, really, when the power will return can help them make a decision about moving in with a relative or going to a hotel, though rooms were hard to find post-Sandy.

It is also clear that, regardless of the assertion that the costs can top $1 million a mile, New Jersey needs to start burying lines underground. We need trees, we want trees, but if storms like Irene and Sandy are going to keep coming every year, we need to get electricity to homes and businesses in a way unaffected by the winds. Burying power lines too expensive? Then how about a generator for every home.

Politicians have had much to say in the wake of Sandy. The time for talking is long past. There is a 263-page report from last year’s storm that is equally valid today. Its recommendations need immediate implementation, most importantly uniform operational standards and fines of $25,000 a day for utilities.

Rebuilding at the shore is going to be a much more difficult political issue. Politicians at all levels of government are going to be faced with pleas to rebuild, or want to rebuild their own communities to attract tourism and not lose rateables. But who is going to pay for the rebuilding this time. And the next.  In many places it will be better to allow the sands and flood plains to return to their natural states and for the islands to return to their original purposes, as a barrier to protect those living on the mainland. 

DG November 19, 2012 at 01:25 PM
I agrre wholeheartedly with the comments in the article. it is time we wake up and implemente all the measures above. If the lines were underground we ( inland) would have been up and running in 24 hours and not 7-10 days later. Nobody estimates accurately the lost wages and earnings caused by a 10 days forced "vacation", sustained by most businesses, but I am sure it is well above the 50 B estimated. In Europe, where I lived the first half of my life, ALL power lines are underground. Venice last week sustained one of the worst floods in its history and yet, the entire city( underwater) had power...I think the news comments itself. The barrier islands should be left unspoiled, or at the very least, have seasonally removable structures, that can be easily and cheaply rebuilt in case of a storm. We should also have better building requirements. Gas lines that shut off authomatically like they have in all hoses in California, would probably have avoided some if not most of the fires, and better and stronger building materials for structures near the ocean should be mandatory. Again, a house built with brick and mortar and some cement underpinnings would have easily sustained the high tide and wind and would have had only minor damage. It is time we spend, for once our hard earned money in something useful and long lasting and we stop puttig a patch on a system that is sorely outdated and too vulnerabe.
Mike November 19, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Europe's lines are underground because the above-ground ones were blown up in WW2 (silver lining to a terrible event). I noticed that while PSE&G was tweeting results, JCP&L was tweeting efforts. No one - not taxpayers, not ratepayers, not shareholders - is willing to pony-up for a 21st century infrastructure. The infrastructure we have, from sewers to water to electric to telephone is on borrowed time, and we'll continue to experience minor and major problems with it and replace it piecemeal.
DG November 19, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Mike, you are absolutely correct. Europe was in ruins and they did the right thing. They also do not build on dunes and have plenty of space between where the water hits the shore and the first building ( usually made of much harder materials than wood), all this in the total absence of Hurricanes. We MUST start somewhere, especially because we are so vunerable and because we are so dependent on electricity and electronic communications. In the end, if we do not begin to really modernize and not just patch up our infrastructure we wil be forced to pay a much bigger price. This is the argument I would have for taxpayers and shareholders.
D Ambriano November 19, 2012 at 05:17 PM
I think it's too bad that we're not even ASKED if we want to pony up for 21st century infrastructure. After all, we--the ratepayers--will be paying for the piecemeal, jury-rigged "fixes" to bring the infrastructure back to the less-than-optimal way it was. We're also on the hook for supposed "upgrades" like Susquehanna-Roseland, which merely take outdated technology to a whole new level rather than reinventing the way electricity can be delivered in a truly 'reliable' way. It's time to look at new solutions and stop using the excuse of "it's too expensive". The power companies have been using the same old-fashioned equipment without really maintaining or upgrading anything for years. So, by default, for years they've been reaping the profits without making the investment. It's time for a REAL upgrade and REAL infrastructure--not a quick fix.
TCG November 19, 2012 at 06:57 PM
This may be the most staggeringly clueless column ever to appear on this site. Who exactly is it that decides where and when people can build? Who gets to play god? Massive storms have wiped out huge swaths of the Jersey shore many times over throughout history. This is relatively easy to research. Had we listen to the author of this drivel, then millions of us would never have grown up with the magical memories we now lament in the wake of Sandy. Even the people who were decimated by the tsunami in places like Phuket and Sri Lanka have taken to rebuilding right next to the sea. It's part of human nature. We will always build next to the sea. And anyone who does so, or moves next to the sea, does so with the understanding that hurricanes are part of the deal you make when you decide to leave near the water. As long as someone is willing to take on that risk, who the hell has the right to say no? There has been widespread and devastating tree damage to thousands of homes that are located nowhere near the ocean. Should we no longer allow people to build homes near trees because one day they may fall and destroy that home? Look...if you want to put your energy into something constructive, let's see if we can elect state and local politicians who understand how to prepare for a storm and how to react. Let's stop rubber-stamping energy company contracts. But to suggest we will stop building near the sea is an idea based in fantasy, not reality. Wait...do you work for Christie?
Mike November 19, 2012 at 08:51 PM
I heard rumors the repair crews from other parts of the country marvel at how old our stuff is, and sometimes need training on how to work with it. Hearsay, but food for thought. If we as a culture were able to think long-term, our prison spending wouldn't be dwarfing our education spending. Infrastructure is no different.
Mike November 19, 2012 at 08:54 PM
Trees are gone so risk is actually diminished; barrier islands will continue to move. I say build, but build differently (gee, which structures survived and why?). Can you imagine what insurance rates will do going forward? It comes down to risk tolerance (financially and otherwise). Then there's the publicly-funded beach fixes, yet towns charge these same taxpayers to get onto the beach they just paid to fix.
DG November 19, 2012 at 10:42 PM
If you have something to say, make your point and refrain from being rude. I understand passionate opinions but you don't know how to make your point with class. This is really being clueless. People can build near the sea but the buildings should not be made of wood.Simple as that. If you are blessed with enough money to buld an oceanfront home, more power to you, however don't come and cry to us taxpayer when your home washes into the ocean. The cement structures( many beach front hotels) in Thailand were still standing after the Tsunami. In case you haven't notoced there are still plenty of trees with wires running right THRU them. the next storm they will drag the power lines out again. if this is what you want you will be certainly satisfied.
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Phyllis Francene Livera November 22, 2012 at 05:20 PM
I would suggest underground lines ..also dome housing especially in coastal areas and in the areas deeply impacted by this storm..Dome housing is more efficient they are radiation, hurricane , flood proof and they cost far less that a regular home and also have included aquaponics and means of growing one's own herbs and vegetables...your source of power is not electricity... go to sustainabledomes.com and also gudni gudnason on facebook has information on these homes... Iceland is already building them and also for Fukishima, Japan there are plans in the works ... New Jersey, Staten Island , NYC , and all the affected areas should really consider and begin this project.. power failures won't be an issue in these homes... Let's be realistic the earth from an astronomical point of view can possibly due to global warming and other issues shift the poles ... solar flares are expanding ....why are we waiting to do something for the benefit of all economically you make your own food sources ...why are we sitting ducks waiting to be slaughtered?...we know the ARC and other organizations did not assist Staten Island ...I know people that personally volunteered and went to assist the people and give them supplies... believe it or not it was the American Veterans Ass ... that was assisting the people... lets wake up and move on Peace PL
David Luber November 22, 2012 at 07:06 PM
I love the shore as much as anyone. But TCG's comment about "willing to take the risk" is misleading. People who build on the shore are able to get subsidized flood insurance that all the rest of us pay for. If they want to build and take the real risk, fine, but let's end having the rest of us subsidize their building with federal flood insurance.
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