The entire infrastructure of natural gas lines under Long Beach Island, more than 300 miles of pipeline, will have to be repaired or rebuilt, a prospect that could keep thousands of island residents out of their homes for months.

The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused massive damage to New Jersey Natural Gas’ underground grid of distribution pipes, which supply gas to homes. On Thursday, New Jersey Natural Gas shut off service to Long Beach Island customers and vented the system, according to a statement from the company.

No timeline was given for the project, but the process to repair can take as little as a few weeks or as long as a few months, said Andrew Lu, managing Director of operations & engineering for the American Gas Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents more than 200 of the nation’s natural gas companies.

Lu said the actions taken by the utility were a “last resort.”

“Gas is different because once the system is breached, a lot is involved in turning it back on,” Lu said. “Utility crews have to do safety checks (on) appliances and fuel lines, which run from behind the meter and the customer is responsible for, to make sure there is no leakage. After that, each house has to be re-lit.”

Now, municipalities across LBI are preparing for temperatures to drop to freezing levels with wet homes and no gas service.

“The gas company didn’t have a plan or any answers. It was like calling India for technical support for your computer. They didn’t even know homes were flooding over here,” Harvey Cedars Mayor Jonathan Oldham said.

“Now you have all these homes filled with water, and things are going to freeze, and we have no gas,” Oldham said.

Officials have held meetings with the utility.

Oldham said residents need to be able to get back on the island as soon as possible to prepare their homes, especially since the gas has been shut off.

Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini said the township will be requiring homeowners to winterize their homes and shut water off since there will be freezing temperatures.

“We will have no heat, and these homes are going to freeze, and the majority of the homes here are heated with gas,” Mancini said.

Oldham said shutting the gas off was a critical decision, but one that had to be made. There have been discussions among officials that it could take as long as six months to have gas service restored.

“I think it will happen a lot sooner than six months. I am hoping for six weeks. Six months is unacceptable,” Mancini said.

The township hopes to allow homeowners to return to the island soon to prepare their homes. Mancini did not have a date or timeline of when that will start, but said homeowners will be permitted to return for a few hours to prepare to winterize their homes and collect important belongings.

Mancini said about 8,000 meters across the island have been compromised by water from the storm, and the gas company has said they will all need to be replaced.

Crews are still inspecting gas lines and meters across the island, Mancini said.

Since the gas has been shut off, the Long Beach Township Municipal Complex will be switching to propane heat service, officials said.

Returning gas service is not an easy fix, Lu said.

If the system is burdened with a large number of leaks, it is easier to shut down the system and work with it in “one fell swoop,” he said.

“The company has already resolved over 1,500 gas leaks, which is an incredible number of leaks to address within three days, and with bad conditions,” Lu said. “It is definitely unprecedented because typically, they would go out there, dig out the line — or if the line is exposed, figure out how to clamp or repair the line — rather than shut down. It’s a very time-consuming process.”

The odor of gas was pervasive after the storm, Mancini said. The odor comes from a sulfur-containing organic compound called Mercaptan that is used as a layer of safety for detecting leaks, according to the American Gas Association.

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, the pressure in the pipes was zero pounds per square inch, and the company began to assess damages to the system, NJNG spokeswoman Renee Amellio said Friday.

“NJNG expects water to infiltrate its pipes once natural gas pressure is no longer flowing through them. This will damage the pipes and require the infrastructure to be rebuilt before service to the barrier islands can be restored,” a gas utility release said.

Until the assessment is done, the company cannot identify a timeline.

Lu explained that water infiltration is detrimental to the system. If the pipes are made of steel, corrosion is a long-term concern, and if pipes are made of plastic, water will reduce the quality of gas.

If service can be returned to some sections, the next step is to make arrangements for those that will be affected, NJNG spokesman Micah Rasmussen said.

The affected portion spans about 600 miles of pipeline, of which 300 are in LBI, Rasmussen said.

FEMA will help the company by providing electric heaters to affected homes, which are receiving electrical service at this time.

Once the gas was shut down, it was safe to turn on electricity, said Greg Reinert, spokesman for the Bureau of Public Utilities. If the gas was still flowing, leaks could pose a fire threat from sparks by electricity, he said.

Atlantic City Electric anticipates restoring power to homes on LBI that can safely accept electricity by the end of the weekend, spokesman Frank Tedesco said.

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