Thousands in South Jersey assess Isaias damage, wait for power to come back

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UPDATED: 4:40 p.m.

HAMMONTON, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — Tropical Storm Isaias may have made a bigger mess in Pennsylvania than in New Jersey, but there are still plenty of people in the Garden State who will be cleaning up and feeling the effects for days to come.

Along Bellevue Avenue in Hammonton, stately trees adorn the large front yards of houses on the town's central artery. But resident John Elston says many of those trees now are nothing but piles of freshly cut wood.

“We drove up and down the street, and there’s some damage. There’s a lot of homes down here," he said.

The Elstons' house was one of several along the Avenue damaged when huge trees were uprooted in the fierce winds Tuesday.

Nicole Elston was with their 6-year-old daughter when a 100-foot tree came crashing down on Tuesday. 

“We heard a really big bang. And I got scared, so I took her into a back section of the house for safety," she said.

Then she saw the damage: “When I walked in, the tree was through the living room.”

John said he couldn’t believe it.

“Yeah, I decided to build a treehouse — but the wrong way!” he said, finding some humor in an unnerving situation.

Crews remove a huge tree from a roof along Bellevue Avenue in Hammonton. The cleanup story today on @KYWNewsradio pic.twitter.com/WUBppezflh

— Mike DeNardo (@_MikeDeNardo) August 5, 2020

The family slept in the house — with the tree poking through the roof.

By noon a crew with a crane, chain saws and a wood chipper had broken up the huge tree and removed it. 

As a public adjuster watched the cleanup, Nicole said there’s no telling how long repairs will take.

“Really, I just want the house restored back to the original way it was. That’s what I want," she said.

Meanwhile, since Isaias knocked out the power for hundreds of thousands of customers in New Jersey, utility crews have been scrambling to get everyone hooked up again. But most residents should see service return by Friday, says Joe Fiordaliso, chair of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

Fiordaliso says that 1.4 million electric customers lost power during the height of the storm, but that number was reduced to 977,000 as of midday Wednesday. 

By comparison, 1.7 million customers lost power at the height of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Some 80% of those who lost power should have it restored by late Friday. The remainder could be in the dark through the weekend. 

Fiordaliso says part of the problem is that not only were power lines torn down by high winds, but transmission systems must also be repaired.

Some 2,000 electric crews from several states are working to restore service.

Meanwhile, Burlington County Freeholder Director Felicia Hopson has called on the BPU to put a freeze on all rate adjustments for utilities until the state looks into what a press release called “reoccurring outages and repeated restoration delays.”

“This is not the first time we’ve seen this scenario,” Hopson said. “It’s become far too commonplace and we need a thorough review and assessment of how utility companies respond to major storms, as well as the actions they take to prepare for them and harden their infrastructure.”

Mike from Mount Laurel, who did not give his last name, says PSE&G told him it will be at least a day before the crew can get to his house.

“The house is ok,” he said. “We have some emergency lights and a small battery-powered electric fan.”

Some houses that lost power took on water when sump pumps failed. Others are located in areas with a high water table. 

Charlie Gardner with Master Dry Waterproofing says his schedule is flooded as well.

“Crazy! Driving around, going through all the obstacles, people getting their basements flooded out — we’re getting calls,” he said. “There’s only one or two waterproofing companies around here, so we’re pretty busy.”

He says now is a good time for homeowners to make sure all downspouts are diverting water at least five feet from the house’s foundation.

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KYW Newsradio's Mike Dougherty, David Madden and Mike DeNardo contributed to this report.