By Jeanine Prezioso
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey Natural Gas on Thursday shut down part of its pipeline system that serves the state's barrier islands, one of the areas most damaged by Hurricane Sandy's high winds and storm surge.
The company was able to assess damages only in the last 24 hours, after the storm hit land on Monday, and found damaged pipelines flaring natural gas from broken ends.
"Literally digging through rubble, we have found some of our exposed, broken pipes with flare-ups on the ends of them," said Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman.
Trees fell on the pipelines, houses came off foundations and took the pipes with them, and water damaged the valves, Rasmussen said.
The shut-off of gas to homes comes just as the winter heating season approaches. The fuel is used to heat more than half of U.S. homes.
"We did everything we could to avoid this," Rasmussen said. "We literally have only gotten into some of these spots in the last 24 hours to see the full scope of the devastation. It's much worse than anyone could have imagined."
The company could not immediately say how long it would take to make repairs.
The affected areas are the barrier islands south of Johnson Street in Bay Head to Seaside Park, as well as Long Beach Island, an area devastated by the storm.
The last flare-up was reported in Brick Township, New Jersey, the company said, which was "made safe" on Thursday morning.
Approximately 28,000 customers are affected.
More than 1,300 leaks have been reported in the past three days, all brought under control.
"We made the determination once we got on the ground that we could not fight this leak by leak," Rasmussen said.
The company sources its gas from major pipelines that send gas from producing regions in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and other gas basins into U.S. Northeast markets.
Some of the pipelines that run into the area are Spectra Energy's Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline and Algonquin Gas Transmission, NiSource's Columbia Gas Transmission Co, Williams Cos Transco Pipeline and Kinder Morgan's Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.
(Additional reporting by Jim Brumm in North Carolina and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)