Chairman gives 'A' grade to JEA's performance during Matthew

Utility aims to improve accountability, buy more generators for sewage pumps

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The JEA board of directors met Tuesday to assess how well the city-owned utility responded during Hurricane Matthew.

Although half of JEA customers lost power at the height of the storm, sewage lift stations had generators that failed and spilled 11 million gallons of toxic sewage, and Matthew caused more than $35 million in damage to the utility, board Chairman Tom Petway said he would give JEA an A grade for its performance. 

"We will have some improvements to make. I'd say, if you press me on a grade, I would give us an A. Knowing that, we'll be striving for an A+," Petway told News4Jax. 

That grade might raise some eyebrows, especially those of customers who had to wait nearly a week for power to be restored. But JEA said it has made vast improvements since previous big storms in Jacksonville. 

JEA CEO Paul McElroy said the utility learned valuable lessons from Matthew as well. 

McElroy told the board that they could make improvements in communications and accountability. He referred to the broken promise of restoring power to all customers in just a few days. 

JEA will also have to look at its power distribution system, which failed when so many trees came down during the storm, McElroy said. 

And in the future, McElroy said, they need more emergency generators to keep sewage pumps operating and avoid spills. 

"I can tell you right now, as we look at lessons learned, we are going to look at that very closely and see if that's approrpriate," McElroy said.

There are currently two areas being tested to see if there is contamination from the sewage spills, according to JEA. 

One site is a dredge canal near the Ortega River, where some leftover waste in wetlands could be filtering into the water, and the other is an area near Wills Branch Creek on Middleburg Road, which may be waste from geese.

During Tuesday's meeting, JEA officials were giving staff high praise. Board members also said they had no problem with the CEO being out of town during the height of the storm. 

"We were connected at all times. I appreciated the opportunity that I was allowed to attend my daughter's wedding. I appreciate that very much. I will tell the board I was in constant communication and contact with the EOC (emergency operations center). I participated in all but three EOC calls. I was involved in the discussion and, ultimately, responsible for any major decisions made during the storm," McElroy said. 

The biggest concern for JEA appeared to be the spilled sewage and why it happened. 

Power outages were also a big problem for many customers. An interesting note that came out of the meeting is that about 50 percent of Jacksonville residents may have power lines that are buried, and while their power still went out, it came on more quickly because only main lines had to be repaired by crews. 

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