As residents and businesses sweated through a long, hot week, one question was on nearly everyone’s lips: “When will my power come back on?"
The story behind that simple question involves an intricate, interwoven grid of wires and towers, together with the decisions that have to be made on just where to start recovery operations and just where to finish.
Of Atlantic City Electric’s 540,000 customers in seven counties, about 206,000 — more than 38 percent — lost power at the height of the blackouts in the wake of the June 30 storm.
By Saturday, service had been restored to about 99 percent of those affected and the utility said it expected to restore power to everyone by the end of the weekend. While many were hot and angry at how long the process took, few knew just how much manpower and resources responded to the region during this emergency.
More than 900 men and women were dispatched here by Monday working to restore power, including 576 line contractors from New York and northern New Jersey, 39 contracted “assessment” crews, and 314 tree-trimmers, according to Atlantic City Electric. To handle it all, the Atlantic City Race Course in Hamilton Township was turned into a staging area and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey provided beds.
Next came the matter of where to begin. Following the storm, 14 of the company’s 130 transmission lines were “destroyed, damaged or knocked out of service,” Driggs said, along with four of the company’s 98 substations.
So the main priority in the first days was not the feeder lines and individual lines knocked down by trees or fallen poles — the most visible damage and the immediate cause of many outages — but restoring the transmission lines and substations, which were needed to return power to both unaffected and damaged local lines alike.
That was the second step, actually — downed live wires and “potentially life-threatening situations” came first.
Once the transmission lines and substations were restored, work began on the damaged “feeder” and individual lines, which is why many neighborhoods that saw outages due to tree damage did not see power restored until the weekend was over.
Those individual lines are the final link in a power grid that extends beyond the state, a series of equipment and wires carrying ever-lessening voltage from generating stations down to the individual house or business.
Atlantic City Electric doesn’t have its own generating stations, said Charlie Driggs, the company’s strategic initiatives manager. The regional transmission organization PJM controls the source of the area’s energy, along with several independently owned generating stations.
At the next level are the transmission lines, which may carry as few as 69,000 volts or as many as 500,000 volts, and the substations, which break up the power to smaller feeder lines of about 12,000 volts each.
“The 12,000-volt lines are the ones at the top of the poles going down the highways,” Driggs said. “You might see three wires at the top of the pole — those are the 12,000-volt lines — then the pole transformer (beneath it), then three wires below with between 240 to 120 volts.”
The transformers transfer power from one circuit to another using the winding coils inside their round bodies, which power the smaller wires attached to individual homes and businesses.
During the course of the week, crews worked shifts of as long as 16 hours per day, Atlantic City Electric spokeswoman Amy Calhoun said, including travel times to and from worksites. Crew trucks were stocked with insulated iced water jugs, she said, and all field crews have been trained in heat safety.
“Many personnel have been working in hot weather for one to two months already,” Calhoun said. “They’re much more acclimated to the weather than a person who spends most of his time in an air-conditioned office.”
By Saturday night, some of the residents still were without power due to heavy localized storm damage that was making repairs very labor intensive, the utility said in a release. According to the company's Website there are still 249 outages and 1,108 people affected as of Saturday evening.
Ed Kline, the owner of Kline construction in Galloway Township, said that many people don’t realize the work that Atlantic City Electric’s support staff — which included about 200 of his employees — have been doing throughout the region.
“You see so many people from Atlantic City Electric out fixing the wires, but you need guys to move the trees out of the way, you need guys doing traffic safety. The telephone poles broken in half, you need to jackhammer out the concrete. My men have gone beyond the call of duty, working 24/7 along with these guys.”
The storm proved much different from the more normal disaster situations, in which there is enough warning to move equipment onto barrier islands for hurricanes or tropical storms or gather the right equipment for blizzards.
“This thing snuck up and smacked us on the back of the head,” Kline said. “And it was kind of a holiday week, so a lot of key employees had off — and everybody was called back to work. We had to scramble all over the state. For a change, equipment in North Jersey had to be brought to South Jersey. JCP&L sent guys down here.”
In the end, the competence of individual power companies is extremely important to recovery efforts in New Jersey. Besides the usual state oversight from agencies such as the Bureau of Public Utilities, there are no real mandated protocols from the state in regards to restoration efforts.
“Most of it is internal protocols,” State Police Lt. Stephen Jones said. “How are you going to do things, all people are on call ... those are all internal things. It’s not government rules.”
Kline, for one, knew just how much effort has gone into getting that power back on.
“Does anyone have any idea,” he said, “how many people are involved behind the scenes to make this happen? They did a hell of a job.”
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