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Customer communication still a thorny issue for state's utilities

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Mantoloking, after Hurricane Sandy.
Mantoloking, after Hurricane Sandy. - (NEW JERSEY NATURAL GAS)

When Hurricane Irene and then an October snowstorm battered New Jersey in 2011, one of the major frustrations — aside from the power outages — was the inconsistent, sometimes contradictory messages ratepayers and local officials received from the state's electric utilities.

Months later, a Board of Public Utilities-commissioned report on the events listed dozens of communications-related recommendations, many of which were put in place in time for Hurricane Sandy.

Though gas utilities weren't a subject of that report, they've taken many of its lessons to heart.

"Some things were extremely apparent, and that is the benefit of a coordinated and very proactive communications plan," said Kathy Ellis, chief operating officer at New Jersey Natural Gas. "And I'm talking about communications from within the company — from executives down to the field and from the field up to us — and I'm talking about communications to our customers."

In the hours after the worst of the storm lifted, the utility's headquarters was without electrical service, relying only on a generator that powered part of the building. Despite the hardship, Ellis said it was critical they were in constant contact with workers in the field, the governor's office and customers.

"The news wasn't always what people wanted to hear, but they knew it was accurate, and they knew what to expect in the days and weeks ahead," Ellis said.

Paul Zuccarino, vice president of distribution operations for South Jersey Gas, said open communication with local emergency management officials also was critical.

"One of the problems we had was when they lifted the ban on travel, we were still responding to the occasional emergency call," he said. "But we were stuck in trying to get onto the island."

Zuccarino said it took close communication with local emergency management officials to get utility vehicles priority on roadways. He said close contact also helps ensure there's a consistent message emanating from various agencies involved in the emergency response.

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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