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JEA CEO on power restoration deadline after Hurricane Matthew: 'We blew it'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — “We blew it.”

It's the simple assessment coming from the head of JEA, who faced an onslaught of questions from Jacksonville's City Council Tuesday night.

While many on Council said they were thankful for the round-the-clock work the utility company has been doing in order to get power back as quickly as possible following Hurricane Matthew, they all shared the same concern: Why was there a deadline set for power restoration?

Councilman Matt Schellenberg said JEA over-promised, and under-delivered.

“I don’t have an excuse for that, other than that we thought we would be able to meet that objective,” said JEA CEO Paul McElroy

On Sunday evening, JEA sent a bulletin on multiple platforms, including social media, their website and email to the media, saying they would have power “substantially restored” by 11:59 p.m. Monday. A few hours ahead of that deadline, they issued an apology, saying “severe damage” to the system was extending the restoration timeline.

Hurricane Matthew videos from the Jacksonville area that you have to watch

When pressed by the Council, McElroy said they were confident in the assessment when they made it based on what they had seen in terms of damage and the extensive resources provided by other utility companies. Through Monday, however, they encountered more tree damage than anticipated, which slowed their work.

“We encountered, really, devastation in the tree canopy. We thought it was damage, it was devastation,” McElroy said.

He would not offer an updated timeline for when the rest of customers' power would be restored. As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, more than 30,000 customers remained without power.

Utility crews from across the country have come to Jacksonville to assist JEA, including teams from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and other parts of Florida.

“We have accepted any and all help offered to us,” McElroy said.

McElroy said JEA plans to keep those resources until all customers have power restored, and that, in fact, he’s reaching out through Gov. Rick Scott to see if even more aid can be sent over. He believes that JEA has the supply inventory needed to complete the restoration.

In all, McElroy believes there was some $30 million in damage to JEA systems.

He further said that there was no excuse for the sewage spills we’ve seen around Jacksonville.

“Any spill is not acceptable,” he said.

In an average month, McElroy said that JEA will record three sanitary sewage overflows. Over the three days of the storm and immediate aftermath, they recorded a total of 72.

“This was extraordinarily bad,” McElroy said.

The spills were largely triggered by two factors, according to McElroy: power outages and high water. He said that about half of JEA’s 1,400 sewer pump stations lost power and not all of them have mobile or back-up generators. Some of the system was also underwater because of the flooding from Matthew.

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McElroy said that they will extensively test any water body that came in contact with a sewage spill, including upstream and downstream. He recognized the health and environmental risk from these incidents, and said that JEA has already reached out to Gov. Scott and Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and plans to work with the city as well to strengthen the system moving forward.

Through the questioning, Council members repeatedly praised JEA for their round-the-clock work. They noted that they wouldn’t have expected power to be quickly restored following the damage the system maintained, which is the reason the blown deadline was frustrating. They also said from their own experience, they saw the frustration of the community trickling down to the linemen who are working so hard.

McElroy promised that they will continue working non-stop to bring power back for everyone.

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