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Crews Work To Restore Power, And Explain The Delay

Utility crews work on power lines as dusk falls in Ship Bottom, a community on Long Beach Island, N.J. (AP)

More than 8 million people lost power after Superstorm Sandy. Five days later, 2.5 million are still waiting as power companies across the region continue to say that restoring power is more complicated than it seems.

The storm packed a one-two punch. First, it flooded several switching stations including one hidden under the New Jersey Turnpike in Newark, says Art Torticelli, who was out with his crew from Public Service Electric and Gas at a switching station in Essex, N.J.

"The water level that rose was about to the top of the fence line here," he says, pointing to debris stuck to the fence at about 6 feet high.

The station was shut down during the storm, but water still got inside circuit breakers and other components. Torticelli uses a number of cleaning tools, including a small wire brush about the size of a toothbrush. He says that every one of the wires has to be taken off and thoroughly cleaned, dried and reattached. "So that's what we're doing now," he says.

These switching stations send power to substations, which in turn deliver it to homes and businesses. This particular station in Essex supplies power to 30,000 residential customers and a number of industrial ones.

Meanwhile, in Nutley, N.J., in the second of that two-part punch, bucket trucks arrived on Montclair Avenue late Friday to clear trees that fell on power lines, driving them into the ground. PSE&G supervisor Scott Hallamin outlined the damage with his crew. "Everything's down," he says about the power, but new poles were up and, after four days without power on Montclair Avenue, Hallamin's crew was there to connect the wires.

Two residents, Ro and Joe Labate, watched with anticipation on the brisk evening, thankful for their power to be restored and wishing they could do a bit more. "I would make them coffee if I could. There's too many of them, though," says Ro Labate.

Hallamin says he hears complaints, but he understands that customers don't see the total picture. That is, how crews have to clear debris, check each line and work block-by-block to get the grids back up. He adds, "All these residents will see is this part. All they know is Montclair Avenue."

Hallamin says crews have been working 16-hour shifts since the storm hit, even with an extra 2,000 workers from outside the area to help.

"They might see us sitting for awhile, but we're waiting for a circuit or waiting for a tree crew, or something happened to the truck like we have a flat tire like we did yesterday. So, you've got to explain it to them," he says.

Theresa Mercado, who lives on this block, says she knows this storm was unprecedented. Still, she says, crews took too long to get here. "It just seems so slow, and thank God that the utility service is out today," she says.

Mercado says the utilities weren't prepared for this kind of damage, but Hallamin says there's not much more they can do. "I work for the company and I'm out of power. I know their pain, but what are you going to do?" he says.

Around 10 last night, Mercado and the others on her block got their power back. PSG&E says it has restored service to more than 1 million customers, but 600,000 are still without power.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Well, the power may be back in parts of Manhattan, but more than two and a half million customers elsewhere are still waiting. NPR's Kathy Lohr takes a look at why it's taking so long to restore electricity to the rest of the region.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: This storm packed a one-two punch. First, it flooded several switching stations, including one hidden under the New Jersey Turnpike in Newark.

ART TORTICELLI: The water level that rose was about to the top of the fence line here. You can see the debris on the fence. So it's about almost six-foot high that the water came through here.

LOHR: Art Torticelli with Public Service Electric and Gas, PSE&G, says the station was shut down during the storm, but water still got inside circuit breakers and other components. Among the cleaning tools is a wire brush about the size of a toothbrush.

TORTICELLI: Every one of these wires, all right, every one that you see has to come off and thoroughly cleaned. All right, dried, cleaned, reattached. So that's what we're doing now.

LOHR: These switching stations send power to substations, which in turn deliver it to homes and businesses. This one supplies 30,000 residential customers and a number of industrial ones.

SCOTT HALLAMIN: Let's pull over here, Mark. Pull over to the side.

LOHR: In Nutley, New Jersey, bucket trucks arrived on Montclair Avenue late yesterday. In this neighborhood, enormous trees fell on power lines, driving them into the ground. This is the second wallop from the storm, the hit on overhead lines. PSE&G supervisor Scott Hallamin outlined the damage with his crew.

HALLAMIN: Everything's down. All single phase is secondary. We got five poles to string wire on.

LOHR: New poles are up. And after four days without power, Hallamin's crew was here to connect the wires.

HALLAMIN: OK, let's start and work our way down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Start here, yup. All right.

HALLAMIN: How far down is it going?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's going around the bend there.

LOHR: Ro and Joe Labate watch with anticipation on this brisk evening.

RO LABATE: I would make them coffee if I could.

JOE LABATE: There's too many of them, though.

(LAUGHTER)

LOHR: Hallamin also hears complaints, but he understands that customers don't see the total picture - how crews have to clear debris, check each line and work block by block to get the grids back up.

HALLAMIN: All these residents of Montclair will see is this part. That's all they know is Montclair Avenue.

LOHR: Hallamin says crews have been working 16-hour shifts since the storm hit, even with an extra 2,000 workers from outside the area to help.

HALLAMIN: They might see us sitting for a while, but we're waiting for a circuit or waiting for a tree crew or something might have happened to the truck where we have a flat tire like we had yesterday. You've got to explain it to them.

LOHR: Theresa Mercado lives on this block, and she knows this storm was unprecedented, but she says crews took too long to get here.

THERESA MERCADO: It just seems so slow, and thank God that the utility service is out today. But it's - nobody could help. I mean, there was literally no way in, no way out.

LOHR: Mercado says the utilities weren't prepared for this kind of damage. But Scott Hallamin says there's not much more they can do.

HALLAMIN: I work for the company and I'm out of power. So I know their pain, but what are you going to do?

LOHR: Around 10 o'clock last night, Mercado and the others on this block got their power back. PSG&E officials say they've restored service to more than one million customers, but 600,000 are still without power. Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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