Dispatch | As Problems Mount, Mendham Residents Come Together

Five days after Sandy blew through New Jersey roughly 714,000 of 1.1 million of Jersey Central Power and Light customers remain in the dark.

Before Sandy hit Governor Chris Christie said utility executives predicted Sandy would knock out power for seven to ten days. State officials had told people to "hunker down" and have three days of food and water on hand. FEMA is expected in town some time Friday afternoon to inspect the 40 homes that sustained substantial storm damage.

But the prolonged outage, combined with an acute gasoline shortage and a lack of commercially available food, has created hardship for hundreds of thousands, in particular the elderly and chronically ill who live alone.

Water has been one concern for municipal officials. They say roughly half of the community relies on private wells, which depend on electric power.

But some communities were prepared better than others to offer residents a place to go for the basics.

In Mendham a recently completed Firehouse and first aid squad headquarters became a home away from home for hundreds of people from the town and its surrounding communities. The recently completed 11,000 square foot building has a second floor that can double as a community center. It has showers and a commercial grade kitchen. On Friday, an impromptu band of volunteers fed 400, up from 150 the day after Sandy hit.

The building's prime movers say they never expected how much it would be used by the community seeking sanctuary and the basics in the aftermath of long term power outages.

"This place has been used three times for this purpose since last August,"  OEM Director Evan Thomas said. Only about 10 percent of Mendham’s power has been restored.

Mendham Township resident Linda Posunko, 69, lives alone and says having the firehouse to come to made the blackout survivable. She says money is tight but she gave the volunteers $100 dollars. "I love these guys. They are my guardian angels."

Local critics complained the $4 million center was overly ambitious.  In the aftermath of Sandy, no one was saying that.

On Friday, the second floor was packed with an inter-generational mix of people grateful for the building's heat, light and wall sockets.

Outside, Fire Chief Jay Alderton was supervising a crew of volunteer firefighters who were de-contaminating Engine 3, which they took down to Toms River, a shore community that was devastated by Sandy and needed additional first responders. The engine was deployed for two days and drove through floodwaters subject to a wide array of potential contamination, Alderton said.

"What we saw is indescribable. The media can't get where we were," a clearly moved Alderton said. "The hardest thing to see was people with nothing asking us questions we could not answer."

Utility trucks from California are coming in to help JCL&P out, according to Thomas. The utility’s coverage area includes the hardest hit parts of the Jersey shore,  much of New Jersey's suburban and rural Highlands and central Jersey. 

The utility had come under intense criticism from state regulators for their performance in the aftermath of Irene and last year's Halloween blizzard.

The utility says it pre-deployed crews to reduce the lag time for restoration.

Under existing state law utilities can only be fined $100 day for failure to perform as required by state regulations. Governor Christie has pending legislation to raise that fine to $25,000 a day.