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Streamlining Communication During Catastrophes [AUDIO]

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William Thomas Cain, Getty Images

In response to customer outrage following extend utility service interruption after Hurricane Irene, State Senator Jim Whelan is set to introduce the “Emergency Information Access Act.”

As many as 1.5 million New Jerseyans lost power during the August storm, with many waiting up to eight days for restoration. Many customers and municipal leaders have been concerned with a lack of communication between the utility companies and the communities about when and where service would be restored. Thousands of residents are without power today as a result of the freak October blizzard over the weekend.

“After Hurricane Irene, people throughout New Jersey were left in the dark both literally and figuratively with little to no information about when they would regain power, water and natural gas service,” says Whelan. “I continue to hear stories from people who received misinformation coming from the utility companies leaving consumers without the ability to make long-term arrangements and plans for post-storm clean up and repairs.”

Under Whelan’s measure, electric, water and natural gas service providers would be required to report service interruptions to the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM) if during a major catastrophic event more than 10% of customers within the utility company’s operating area or 10% of customers within a specific municipality or county within the utility company’s operating area lose service or if a state of emergency or disaster is declared by the governor or president.

Within 24 hours, utility providers would also be required to submit a report to OEM as well as to the mayor or executive of each affected area that includes the cause of the service interruption, the estimated time that service will resume, and any health safety advisories including boil water advisories. They would also be required to report to OEM any additional information in connection with the utility company’s effort to resume service including plans for ongoing work in each affected municipality and factors which may hinder or delay restoration of service. They will need to submit a report 24 hours after the initial report is filed, with updated restoration plans, delays and hindrances and would be required to post this information on their Web sites and to make it available through a 24-hour toll-free telephone line.

“New Jerseyans need a system that will provide peace of mind while effectively making available the information they need to begin recovering from these natural disasters and storms,” explains Whelan. “Learning from the communication missteps in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, we must reassess the information protocol between the electric, water and natural gas providers, state agencies, municipal governments and consumers. This bill will create clear steps for the state and local governments and consumers to gain information from the utility companies about how the repairs are progressing.”

The bill will also provide information and improve communication focusing on road and highway closures during major catastrophic events and will require the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority as well as any other state or local entity having jurisdiction over any road or highway to report to OEM any known road or highway closures. The OEM will also be required to make all of these reports from utility companies and transportation organizations public by posting information on their Web site listed by county and municipality and through a telephone line.

Whelan says, “By providing Web sites and telephone numbers with utility service interruptions, repair and restoration of service schedules and road closings, New Jerseyans will have the ability to make informed decisions on how they will recover from the natural disaster or storms.”

Any utility provider who fails to report this information to the OEM would be liable to a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each day that the violation continues. The bill is expected to be formally introduced at the next Senate quorum sometime later this month. Whelan hopes the bill is passed and signed in the lame duck session so that it can be law before winter actually sets in.

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