Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mold Concerns Remain After Hurricane Sandy

Five months after Hurricane Sandy made landfall and as the restoring and rebuilding efforts are more or less under way, there is still what maybe a lingering public health issue potentially affecting everyone repairing their homes. Julian Omidi discusses the efforts to address this problem, as well as the health concerns.

With all of the problems that Hurricane Sandy left in its destructive wake, there is one that is not readily detectable but may have consequences that could endure even after much of the devastation has been cleared: mold.[1]

Even the buildings that did not suffer particularly grievous structural damage were nonetheless saturated with water. The moist environment coupled with the spores lingering in the atmosphere left a perfect breeding ground for mold, which is believed to aggravate certain chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, although there is as yet no conclusive research proving that mold in itself is a major threat to health. Allergy and asthma sufferers may nevertheless find that their symptoms are more acute than they typically are, and will therefore find it difficult to breathe and sleep in mold-infested environments.

Nonetheless, it has been found that moldy conditions do seem to worsen allergies, and people with compromised immune systems due to severe existing illnesses may be in danger of weakening further if persistently exposed to mold.

Getting federal relief funds for mold removal can be tricky. FEMA does allot some money for the remediation of mold, but only after its presence has been visually verified by an inspector from the agency. However, even though the mold may be lurking invisible beneath the surface, it cannot necessarily be spotted for, sometimes, many months.

Funding for mold removal for Hurricane Sandy victims will partly come from the federal allotment and partly from private donations. The American Red Cross and The Robin Hood Foundation are expected to contribute a significant portion. The $15 million is expected to be disbursed among the 2,000 structures that have already been overtaken with advanced levels of mold since the hurricane.

There are initiatives under way to help homeowners handle mold on their own. Residents can take free courses on the best ways to clean up mold using household soaps and solvents, as well as tips on how to hire professional mold remediation companies to remove it, since New York State doesn’t issue licenses to professional mold removers, and therefore doesn’t have an established set of standards for such companies.

Mold is a common nuisance for many households. If you think your home could have a mold problem because your own allergies or asthma have become difficult to manage, it is advisable to have a professional contractor inspect the premises and possibly perform an air quality test. Mold can significantly devalue a home in addition to possibly causing physical discomfort to its inhabitants.

[1] Maslin-Nir, Sarah: Questions Emerge About the Mold that Hurricane Sandy Left Behind New York Times 3/1/2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

Discrepancies Over Billing During Hurricane Sandy Power Outages

New Jersey residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the force of Hurricane Sandy have begun to receive utility bills that reflect power usage that would have been flat-out impossible, considering not only the power outages, but also the fact that many of the homes and businesses were uninhabitable after the storm.

Many New Jersey residents are reporting utility bills that don’t seem to reflect the amount of power that is being used. In fact, many of these bills from Jersey Central Power & Light seem to be grossly inflated, since the residences for which the power usage was estimated were knocked from the foundations and therefore uninhabitable[1].

The billing practice for Jersey Central Power & Light (as well as other power companies) is to estimate the amount of power that should have been used during a particular time frame and bill the customer based on that assessment. What JCP & L failed to take into account was that the amount of power used by many New Jersey inhabitants post-hurricane was significantly less than what it ordinarily would have been. A woman who lives in Seaside Park received a series of utility bills from the months of October through February for the same pre-hurricane amount, only she hadn’t been in her home in two months. When she contacted JCP & L, she was told by a service representative that the billing would take approximately 30 days to resolve.

JCP & L has told residents who have received erroneous bills that they are free to call their help line for assistance, but hasn’t yet issued a statement regarding the billing practices. Recently, JCP & L announced their plans to implement a 4.5 percent rate increase in order to pay for the restoration and repair of the utility lines that had fallen during the storm.

It is estimated that 10,000 homes in Ocean County are still unoccupied, and many of the owners are still receiving estimated utility bills.

The inaccurate bills, combined with the intent to raise the rates, have caused outrage among many New Jersey residents, who don’t believe that the service that they received after the storm merited a rate hike.
Power wasn’t fully restored for weeks after the storm for many home and business owners, and the communication within the utility company was so poor that the field representatives didn’t even know where the outages were, in spite of local officials notifying of the locations. According to Robbinsville Mayor David Fried, many officials will try to appeal the rate hike request, and try to lobby for the option of choosing the power company for the region, rather than having a power supplier assigned without negotiation.

[1] Friedman, Alexi: Some Hurricane Sandy-Affected Residents Report ‘Wildly Inaccurate’ Electric Bills 3/4/2013 The Star Ledger

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Will New Jersey Residents See an Increase in Rates After Hurricane Sandy?

Although it has been nearly four months since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, the after affects are still being felt. One of those after effects includes a rate hike for electric services, something citizens and public officials both object to. 

Jersey Central Power & Light announced that it plans to implement a 4.5 percent rate increase in order to make up for the lost revenue from the power restoration from Hurricane Sandy. The rate increase would amount to approximately $53 more per year for the average customer using 650 kilowatt hours per month.[1]

New Jersey public officials object to the rate increase, saying that the restoration of power for many residents was unacceptably slow. Several New Jersey Mayors plan on filing an official objection with the state Board of Public Utilities. According to Mayor Bettina Bieri, Mayor of West Milford, “To get a rate hike while we see no improvement to their service … we feel that’s just a slap in the face to ratepayers.”
Of the 2 million New Jersey residents left without power, approximately 1.1 million are customers of Jersey Central Power & Light. Full electrical power wasn’t restored to the state until the end of November 2012, nearly one month after the storm made landfall. 

New Jersey residents who were deprived of power had to improvise methods of keeping warm and fed. Some residents had to heat food on their back yard barbeques, while others had to walk to obliging homes whose power had been restored to shower and charge their cellular phones.  Babies that were not accustomed to sleeping under blankets had to sleep wearing layers and layers of pajamas. One resident reported using her car battery to charge her cellular phone.[2]

Jersey Central Power & Light reportedly replaced 6,700 utility poles and cut down 65,000 trees, more than twice the typical amount replaced on an annual basis. Additionally, the rate hike is meant to cover the expenses for the salaries and room and board for of all of the additional workers brought in from across the country.

The utility company also announced its plans to use $200 million to reinforce and expand the infrastructure.
JCP & L currently has the lowest residential rates of all four power companies operating in New Jersey. Nevertheless, in the post-hurricane economic climate, many residents will find the rate increase difficult to bear.

[1] Ensslin, John, C: JCP&L Rate-Hike Angers North Jersey Mayors 2/23/2013
[2] Gross, Doug; Le Trent, Sarah: Powerless in New Jersey Post Sandy 11/3/2013 CNN