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Pa. utilities, road crews keep eye on Hurricane Sandy

Workers told to cancel vacations as PEMA prepares for possible impact

Power companies ready to apply lessons learned in storms

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Utilities, road crews and emergency management personnel throughout Pennsylvania are keeping a close watch on Hurricane Sandy.

Utility workers have been told to cancel vacations, state transportation officials are plotting storm strategy and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has been in touch with federal weather forecasters about the likely path of the storm.

Sandy made landfall over Cuba on Thursday. Forecasters said the storm may combine with other weather systems to create a major storm over the northeastern U.S. early next week.

Link: Interactive hurricane tracker

PPL Corp. spokesman Michael Wood said the utility has canceled personal time for its workers, asked hundreds of local contractors to remain on standby and reached out to its sister utility in Kentucky in case crews need to be brought in.

PPL's phone and computer systems were overwhelmed last year when Hurricane Irene and then a late October snow storm caused hundreds of thousands of customers to lose power. Wood said the utility has since made upgrades, adding phone lines and call center staff, and is better prepared to handle a monster storm.

"We're in a much better place this year," he said.

Other Pennsylvania utilities, including PECO and FirstEnergy, said they're also getting ready in the event Sandy slams the state.

"Communication is the key," said Scott Surgeoner, spokesman for FirstEnergy. "Letting people know what's going on being able to respond to their issues and concerns more quickly helps in any situation."

FirstEnergy is the parent company of Met-Ed. Surgeoner said the company critiqued what went wrong during Tropical Storm Lee, Hurricane Irene and the big snowstorm before last Halloween when thousands of its customers went many days without electricity.

"We can always learn something," said Surgeoner.

With Hurricane Sandy predicted to hit Pennsylvania and New Jersey early next week, Surgeoner said communication will be better.

"And we'll have a Met-Ed representative in those county emergency agency offices," said Surgeoner.

Met-Ed will have improved communication with emergency services and with its customers, who can now report an outage using a smartphone.

"If you do lose power, you can always look at the FirstEnergy website to get outage information," said Surgeoner. "That's new since the storms of 2011."

Met-Ed is now preparing for the possibility of widespread outages throughout its terrirory next week.

"We need all the Met-Ed employees in this case to be ready to go to work and to work around the clock until the last customer is restored if the storm hits," said Surgeoner.

If Hurricane Sandy is that perfect storm that includes downed trees and power lines like we saw last year, both FirstEnergy and PPL said they have crews on standby in other states ready to step in to help.   

"Then we'll work to restore those outages as quickly as possible," said Surgeoner.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency urged residents to prepare for a possible storm by making sure they have three days of supplies at home and that they know how to reach family members in case of emergency. PEMA spokeswoman Ruth Miller said the agency has been in touch with federal weather forecasters about the likely path of the storm, but added it's ``a little early'' to be in full disaster preparations mode.

State transportation officials in Harrisburg will be plotting storm strategy with PennDOT's 11 regional offices on Friday.

"We get decision makers on the line to really talk about, OK, what's our strategy? Is this ready? Is that truck ready? Do we have enough salt moved? We go over the nuts and bolts of really managing the storm to make sure we are on the same playing field," said PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar.

Chizmar said PennDOT has 2,250 trucks that can be pressed into service as snow plows and salt spreaders. But with the storm still days away, it's a little early to move equipment into place, he said.

"While some forecasts bring a hurricane bomb up into central Pennsylvania, other models take it out to sea," he said.

He said now is a good time for motorists to make sure they're vehicles are ready for winter and stocked with an emergency kit.

State elections officials in Harrisburg were not planning any precautionary warnings or action in anticipation of the storm, for now.

The 67 counties run elections in Pennsylvania and it is their responsibility to have contingency plans for storms, floods, fires and other events that could interfere with voters casting ballots on Election Day, said State Department spokesman Ron Ruman. Backup measures may include designating alternative polling places, he said.

Also, county election board also may petition the county's president judge to extend voting hours on Election Day to compensate for temporary interruptions in balloting.

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