Gov. Chris Christie came to the defense Thursday of Jersey Central Power& Light, saying the utility has improved significantly since last year's widely panned Hurricane Irene and October snowstorm performances.
At a morning press conference at the Somerset National Guard Armory, Christie said 390,000 customers remain without power in the state, including 167,000 who lost power during Wednesday's nor'easter. He said damage from the nor'easter was less extensive than had been feared, and represented only a "slight" setback in the overall recovery.
Christie said more than 90 percent of the customers at three of the state's utilities – Public Service Electric & Gas, Atlantic City Electric and Rockland Electric – are now with power. Nearly a quarter of JCP&L's customers remain in the dark, but Christie said that doesn't make the utility a "laggard."
"No, they just have the toughest territory in this regard," Christie said.
He noted that JCP&L covers both some of the most heavily wooded areas in the state, and also most of the state's coastline, "so they drew the short straw on this one, from a logistics perspective."
The governor said he would again do an after-action report to evaluate the performance of all of the state's utilities, but so far, he said he's pleased.
Christie said utility workers are putting in 16-hour days, and while that's cold comfort to those without power, he said the workers deserve praise. He cautioned politicians and the media against vilifying power companies.
"The villain in this instance is Hurricane Sandy," he said. "That's the villain."
Christie said he hopes to see power restored for the vast majority of customers by the end of the weekend. Next week, he hopes to shift from "recovery" to "rebuilding." On that front, he said the major long-term economic issue will be the rebuilding of the Jersey Shore.
"My guess is that this will be a process that will take a while," he said. "Certainly it won't happen all by this summer… It won't be like you'll walk out to the, you know, Seaside Heights boardwalk next summer and act like nothing ever happened. I can't imagine that that will be the case."
Still, Christie said he'll work as quickly as he can. He plans to meet next week with local officials in shoreline communities to prioritize projects and find out where federal help is needed.