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Economists, executives debate state's recovery, post-Sandy, at Rutgers forum

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Major parts of New Jersey's power and distribution networks rebounded quickly after Hurricane Sandy, but many questions remain about how to protect them against future disasters, experts in those industries said today.

Issues about long-term resiliency were raised in New Brunswick at the Rutgers Economic Advisory Service conference, where economists also weighed the prospects of the state's overall recovery. Even with the reconstruction work tied to the October storm, Rutgers experts said New Jersey's recovery may continue to lag the national trend.


Ralph LaRossa
Ralph LaRossa

The forecast began with a presentation by Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of Public Service Electric & Gas, who gave a blow-by-blow account of how the utility prepared for a storm that would affect some 2 million of its customers. He said many of those preparations were ultimately neutralized by the unprecedented storm surge, which flooded substations and miles of electrical infrastructure along the Newark Bay.

PSE&G scrambled to restore power in two weeks, LaRossa said, but the storm raised questions about how to protect a system that has much of its infrastructure in coastal areas, due in large part to the makeup of New Jersey's economy in past generations.

"All I know is the world has changed," LaRossa said. "And the storms that used to make a left into North Carolina are making a left into New Jersey."

The utility in February filed a $3.9 billion proposal with state regulators, outlining how the company could harden its system, elevate its infrastructure and take other protective measures. LaRossa also said today that there's no shortage of debate about measures like putting power lines underground, despite the costs.

New Jersey's supply chain also overcame significant damage to come back online in the days after Sandy, said Anne Strauss-Wieder, a Westfield-based logistics and distribution expert. She called it "a pretty remarkable story when you talk about the Port of New York-New Jersey — hard-hit by the storm on a Monday, and open by Friday for the first vessel."

The quick rebound was due to terminal operators, labor unions and other stakeholders working together, Strauss-Wieder said, but the industry needs longer-term solutions for building resiliency in its physical infrastructure and communication networks. She also cited the need to refine regulations, giving the example of how a shipping company in such an event can "(make) use of other locations in the U.S. and (look) through what's required to have a trucker from Virginia deliver cargo to a terminal in New Jersey."

"All of those layers have to work together to move goods from where they're produced to where they're consumed," Strauss-Wieder said, later adding, "There's clearly, as with any event like this, fine-tuning, but everyone's working together to make that happen now in the aftermath."

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