What We Learned from Superstorm Sandy

Dec. 1, 2012
As the East Coast recovers from this catastrophic storm, the region's electrical industry is a key player in the restoration efforts.

Every distributor, rep, manufacturer, contractor or other electrical professional who lives or works within Superstorm Sandy's 250-mile-long swath of destruction along the Eastern Seaboard has a very personal story about how this catastrophic storm affected them, their families, businesses, and where they are at in their recovery efforts.

It was for all of them a never-to-be forgotten moment in their lives. For those who lost a home packed with a lifetime of memories, hopefully all of their family members came through the storm unscathed. For those that were among the 8 million that lost power for up to two weeks, hopefully that was the worst of their troubles and a family member or kind neighbor took them in for a few nights. And for those who lost a loved one, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

The sheer scope of devastation is hard to imagine if you aren't from the East Coast. Initially, eight million homes and businesses were without power from Atlantic City, N.J., north for more than 250 miles along the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, as far north as New London, Conn., and Montauk, N.Y., and at least 75 miles inland throughout the densely populated suburbs of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. More than two weeks after the storm, several thousand homes and businesses in the communities that got hit hardest were still without power. These statistics touch on the scope of the storm's impact:

  • More than 100 lives lost.

  • 8 million people without power.

  • $50 billion in damage, according to one storm damage estimate in Engineering-News Record (ENR).

  • 59,422 cubic yards of debris removed by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to another ENR article.

  • Thousands of utility workers from across the United States on the scene to restore power.

It's amazing what you learn about people during a crisis. Larry Heimrath, CEO, of G&G Electric, New York, watched proudly how his nephew, Joe Fusco, kept G&G alive while being without power for four days. Heimrath, who gave readers of Electrical Marketing's LiveWire on-the-scene insight into G&G's recovery efforts in the week following the storm, says that while G&G was operating under emergency power, Fusco contacted suppliers and boldly ordered a large supply of load centers, breakers, fuses and meters. “While our competitors ran short we had the material,” he said in one email to Electrical Wholesaling.” I was pleased and impressed.”

In the days following the storm, he wrote in another email, “Reflecting on the past few days, I can take great satisfaction in Joe and a very competent staff. At an early age I had great success owing to an ability to hire and manage a great staff. Joe clearly has learned the trick. It seems like it was just yesterday that I instructed him in the value of staff development and delegation of authority. Joe certainly continued a great tradition from which he should reap great benefit.”

Heimrath, a native Brooklyn resident who for 20 years has commuted by bicycle across the Brooklyn Bridge to G&G's Manhattan location on West 24th St., says his November sales increased by 50%, and that long-term repairs to the electrical services of buildings on the East River and Hudson River will keep G&G's sales inflated for the next six to 12 months.

However, it's a bittersweet business triumph for him. “Although we should be happy for the extra business, the pall of disaster limits the joy,” he wrote. “Joe's mother and grandma (my sister-in-law and mother-in-law), who share a house on Staten Island, suffered three feet of water, as if the loss of power for two weeks wasn't bad enough. And they are among the lucky ones, lucky owing to a family with the resources to return life back to normal in a few months. Thousands will be left homeless with no hope of normalcy for the foreseeable future, and soon to be forgotten.”

It's surprising how well most East Coast electrical distributors seemed to have pulled through the storm. Days after the storm, Electrical Wholesaling's editors were in touch with quite a few distributors with branches from Delaware up through Connecticut, and none of them had had a branch destroyed. And staffers from the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, said very few NAED members cancelled their plans to attend the NAED Eastern Conference in Hollywood, Fla., which was held just two weeks after the storm.

Electrical distributors with whom EW's editors spoke weren't surprised by the types of products that customers to bring the region's electrical systems back to life. Generators were one of the hottest products, and Griffith Electric Supply, Trenton, N.J., had the good fortune to receive a shipment of 50 generators the morning before the storm hit. Bill Goodwin, company president, said, “We received 50 generators Monday morning, and they were out of here by noon.” He added that the twist-lock plugs needed for generators were also in high demand, as were flashlights, batteries and SO cord.

With branches in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, and Brooklyn, N.Y., Colonial Electric Supply covers much of the area that caught the worst of the storm. Steve Bellwoar, the company's president, said damage was “minimal” near the Colonial headquarters in suburban Philadelphia, but that some of its other locations were in areas that had widespread power outages. He said in the days after the storm Colonial Electric Supply was busy selling transformers, aerial cable, fuses and “typical things that get blown out.” “We are probably going to sell a lot of load centers for flooded basements at some point,” he said.

Steve's cousin Peter, the company's vice president, said, “This is the third year in a row that the area has been hit with a storm in the fall that has caused widespread power outages and work stoppage. However, the past two years' storms cannot compare to the mess that Sandy left us. I could be wrong, but it seems people are getting pretty good at preparing for the problems that these storms deliver and then digging in to clean up and move on.”

Advance planning helped some electrical manufacturers, including Cooper Power Systems and Eaton Corp., to prepare for the storm. A Cooper press release said the company was in touch with area utilities several days before the storm to see what type of inventory they would need in the recovery efforts, and Eaton had its Crisis Response Mobile Units in place and ready to assist. Pete Comber, executive V.P. of Omni Cable, West Chester, Pa., said the accuracy of the weather forecasts for the predicted landfall of the storm helped some companies prepare for the storm, but that no one could have expected so much damage. While Omni Cable's headquarters in suburban Philadelphia didn't lose power, he said the company had disaster recovery plans in place, including a computer system in its Denver branch that “mirrors” the system in the company's main office and kicks in instantaneously if the headquarters' ERP system loses power.

The business press was loaded with reports about the need for generators and the impact Superstorm Sandy had on generator manufacturers. Shortly after the storm hit, Caterpillar, Peoria, Ill., issued a statement outlining its plans to supply generators through its dealership network that said H.O. Penn, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a five-location Cat dealer with locations in southern New York, Long Island and Connecticut, provided approximately 100MW of portable generator sets to customers in the greater New York City area.

The release said additional portable generator sets were staged in H.O. Penn yards and were ready for mobilization as the priorities for use are determined and locations were identified by local authorities. Other Cat dealers across the eastern United States and Canada, including Milton Cat (13 locations), Foley Inc. (four locations) and Ransome (nine locations), mobilized and had hundreds of generators ready to be deployed as the hardest-hit areas were identified.

Generac Holdings Inc., Waukesha, Wis., was in the spotlight shortly after the storm, and Aaron Jagdfeld, the company's CEO, was quoted frequently in the business press about how his company was handling the surge in demand for generators. The impact of the storm on Generac's financials was immediate — the company's stock price increased 36% in the week following the storm.

A month after the storm, much of the focus on the storm damage has shifted to how the area's electric utilities can be better prepared for the next natural disaster. New Jersey's JCP&L and Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), and New York's Consolidated Edison generally got high marks for the response and recovery work. But in Long Island, LILCO is getting crucified in the press because of its slow response, poor maintenance of an aging above-ground distribution system and general mismanagement.

Because the storm hit such a densely populated area, the scale of damage and necessary electrical restoration may turn out to be unlike anything these companies have seen before. In hard-hit New York and New Jersey, the two largest electric utilities, ConEd and PSE&G, had a combined total of more than 2,000 workers from their own crews and out-of state working around the clock to restore power. A ConEd press release said, “The storm knocked down more than 100,000 primary electrical wires in overhead areas. There are also thousands of secondary wires down.

“In areas served by underground electrical equipment damaged by the largest storm surge in New York City history, the equipment must be cleaned of seawater, dried, inspected and tested before it can be safely placed back in service. Con Edison has secured assistance from 1,400 external contractors and mutual aid workers from utilities as far west as California.”

A PSE&G press statement said, “PSE&G has assembled a virtual army of over 1,550 technicians — 600 PSE&G workers and 950 workers from across the country — plus an additional 600 contractors to cut and remove trees.”

While these numbers are indeed staggering, the real story of Superstorm Sandy for distributors, reps and manufacturers is how their individual employees performed during the crisis. Prime-time players thrive in crisis mode. As we learned earlier, G&G's Larry Heimrath was very impressed with how his nephew, Joe, kept the business running without power. But he also had this to say about how one of his employees handled a large transaction during the crisis:

“I was particularly impressed by Bobby Rivera, who grew up on the Spanish Lower East Side and has worked for G&G for the last 16 years. Starting in the warehouse, he has become a key employee and has learned an awful lot. Mega Watt Electric, a Florida-based firm working for FEMA contacted Bobby regarding a $110,000 wire order on an ASAP basis. Masterfully, Bobby got the order through arranging pick from our warehouse and Brazill Brothers (an independent manufacturers' rep) — All this while arranging for payment on an Amex. It was wonderful to watch him in action.”

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

Sponsored Recommendations