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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. 

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