Two crippling storms in one month: Are underground wires the answer?

Snapped pole on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Snapped pole on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
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By Kevin Coughlin

Twice last month, brief but powerful storms slammed Greater Morristown, toppling trees and shutting down power to thousands of residents.

Were these examples of the increasingly violent storms that some forecasters say we can expect as global temperatures rise?

And would burying power lines minimize extended outages that have become a way of life in our area since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011?

Experts aren’t ready to go out on a limb on either issue.

WHAT HIT US?

First, what exactly were those ferocious storms that selectively blasted Morristown and Morris Township on Thursday, July 14, 2016, and added Morris Plains to the wreckage on Saturday, July 30?

The Presbyterian Parish House, Morristown storm damage, July 14, 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Presbyterian Parish House, Morristown storm damage, July 14, 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The National Weather Service says a “squall line” of strong winds was responsible for the July 14 damage, which included several parked cars battered by falling tree branches around 3:30 pm.

Police urged residents to avoid travel, a Verizon 5K race was postponed, and the National Park Service closed Fort Nonsense in Morristown for more than two weeks.

July 14 aftermath, slideshow photos by MG contributors
Bench uprooted behind Morristown town hall. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Tree down on South Street near Bank of America. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Damage to Hill Street residence. Photo by Ken Hoffman
Georgian Road house narrowly escapes disaster. Photo by Leslie Raff
An apparent electrical fire, on Morris Avenue near Georgian Road. Photo by Leslie Raff
Traffic backed up on Morris Avenue. Photo by Leslie Raff
Traffic on Route 287 is slowed by downed trees. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Morris Avenue home near Lafayette. Photo by Leslie Raff
Tree on power lines at King and Pine streets. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Lafayette closed at Morris Avenue. Photo by Leslie Raff
Lafayette Street closed. Photo by Leslie Raff
Tree down on Vail Mansion lawn. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Hill Street home takes a tree hit. Photo by Ken Hoffman
Rich Modzeleski surveys damage to his Hill Street home. Photo by Ken Hoffman
Tree on house, on Georgian Court. Photo by Leslie Raff
Oak uprooted on Georgian Road. Photo by Leslie Raff
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IMG_2286 - Bench uprooted behind Morristown town hall. Photo by Pamela Babcock, july 14, 2016
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A gust of 53 mph was recorded at Morristown Airport. Technically, that’s 5 mph shy of the minimum for a “severe thunderstorm.” But the NWS also factors in damage reports when making that designation, said Lead Forecaster Sarah Johnson at the Mt. Holly weather station.

On July 30, a large cluster of thunderstorms — not quite a squall line — produced a “downburst” just before 3 pm, Johnson said.

Snapped pole on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Snapped pole on Western Avenue, July 30. Photo by Pamela Babcock

The term refers to air that sinks quickly during a storm.

“When it hits the ground, it has no place to go but out,” the meteorologist explained.  Downbursts generally cover wider areas, causing less intense havoc, than microbursts, she said.

No strong wind gusts were recorded this time, although there was heavy rainfall, just like on July 14.

Some 20,000 customers immediately lost power on July 30, when lightning knocked out a 230,000-volt transmission line that supplies a Morristown substation, said Scott Surgeoner of Jersey Central Power & Light.

Four utility poles snapped on Western Avenue, which was closed to traffic in Morristown and Morris Township. Eighty percent of JCP&L’s customers in Morris Plains lost electricity.

Power was restored throughout Greater Morristown by 6 pm the next day, Sunday, according to JCP&L.

Aftermath of July 30 storm, slideshow photos by MG contributors

Road closure, post-storm. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Repair crews at work on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Crews working to repair lines on Western Avenue. Photo by Tim Dougherty
Tree on house after severe storm hit Greater Morristown. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Snapped trees at Heritage House. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Fort Nonsense--which had finally reopened after storm damage on July 14, 2016, is closed again. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Snapped pole on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Downed tree on Western Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
Emergency signs delivered by DPW to Mount Kemble and Maple Avenue. Photo by Pamela Babcock
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IMG_2395 - Road closure, post-storm. Photo by Pamela Babcock, july 31, 2016
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Residents expressed surprise at the intensity of these back-to-back storms; Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty wondered if a tornado had struck last weekend.  Are we witnessing the fury of global warming?

“It is impossible to link severe events like this directly to something like climate change,” said Rutgers Professor David Robinson, New Jersey’s state climatologist. “Fact is, it is summer, which is the season for severe storms in New Jersey.  July has been an active month to be sure!”

Last month was the state’s hottest July in 30 years, with Newark’s average temperature measuring 2.5 degrees above normal, said Johnson of the National Weather Service.

So far in 2016, the Mt. Holly weather station has issued 167 severe thunderstorm warnings for 15 New Jersey counties and parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.  Last year was even busier, with 209 warnings over the same span.  July typically spawns the most thunderstorms, she said.

Getting walloped twice last month was an “unfortunate coincidence” for Greater Morristown –“it is hit-or-miss”–and not necessarily evidence of wider cataclysms, Johnson said.

“It’s hard to relate climate change to a single event or a single season. It happens on a global scale, over decades,” she said.

More aftermath of July 14 storm, slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin

Morristown storm damage, July 14, 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for this area 23 minutes ahead of the July 14 storm. But the warning was eight minutes late on July 30, Johnson said.

“It’s harder to warn for winds than for hail,” she said. “Hail shows up on radar pretty well.”

Mayor Dougherty praised last weekend’s “stellar” response by police, firefighters, public works employees and JCP&L crews. He plans internal meetings to brace for more.

“My worry is this pattern of extremely fast moving, strong storms that seem to hit us very hard,” the Mayor said.

CAN YOU DIG IT?

Nobody can deny the environmental and aesthetic benefits of trees, which provide life-giving oxygen, cooling shade and natural beauty.

Yet Irene, the Halloween “Frankenstorm” of 2011, Hurricane Sandy, and July’s one-two punch have cast trees in a different light: As lumbering agents of darkness, raining destruction on homes and power lines.

Although Morristown has been diligent about removing weak trees, “you can’t storm-proof everything,” said Rich Wolowicz, the town arborist.

Sidewalks and streets that are part-and-parcel of urban areas hamper development of strong roots, he said.

“Once the soil gets saturated, and you get wind and rain, trees are going to uproot.  If it’s dry and there are heavy winds, they’re going to snap,” Wolowicz said.

So why not move vulnerable power lines underground?

“It can cost seven to 10 times more” than above-ground lines, answered JCP&L’s Surgeoner.

Georgian Road house narrowly escapes disaster. Photo by Leslie Raff
Georgian Road house narrowly escapes disaster from mighty oak, July 14, 2016. Photo by Leslie Raff

Underground lines are subject to flooding–a problem during Sandy–as well as accidents from construction digs, and even gnawing by subterranean creatures.

“In addition, the repairs to underground construction typically take longer to repair than overhead,” Surgeoner said.

“It takes longer to identify the problem, and then the digging, repair, and returning the area that was unearthed to make repairs, is more time-consuming and expensive than typical overhead construction.  Ultimately, customers of an electric utility bear the costs for any type of construction and for the utility to supply service.”

Nearly all new residential and commercial developments in the U.S. install underground power lines, according to a 2013 study by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry organization. However, those facilities invariably are served by above-ground transmission lines.

While weather is responsible for 54 percent of outages, according to 11 years of data analyzed for the study, fewer than 10 percent of customers polled for that study were willing to double their electric bills to pay the “realistic costs” of burying their power lines.

Citing downtown Morristown’s history of exploding manholes and fires in its underground network, Morris Plains Mayor Frank Druetzler said he’s “not that crazy” about the idea of burying his borough’s electric lines.

“The cost would be phenomenal,” he said. “About 20 years ago, we looked at burying them underground at Speedwell Avenue. It would have been $1 million just for a block.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. By not installing power lines underground the US is a 3rd world country.

    The response from JCP&L is unfounded and misleading. The likelihood of failure of underground cables is insignificant compared with pole mounted cables for places like Morristown.

    The issue here is a lack of planning and long term investment.

    In most other developed countries cables are always buried and it is a requirement when planning any development or when cables are replaced/upgraded.

    During Sandy the only area of Morristown to have power was downtown. Why? Underground cables…

    The utility companies need to factor in the cost of these avoidable outages when citing the increased cost of installation.

    Going underground is the only way to go!

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