By Jennifer Merritt
(Reuters) - When some Westchester County, New York, residents called utility Consolidated Edison on Friday to find out why it was taking so long to restore power, they were told that it wasn't for lack of manpower or equipment.
It was poles ... utility poles.
Despite the caravans of power trucks in neighborhoods across the New York City area, a shortage of the specially-treated wooden poles used to string overhead power transmission lines and hold up transformers may be slowing the recovery.
Specialty pole suppliers like Cox Industries and Bridgewell International are producing and trucking as many as 1,500 poles a day to customers in the Northeast since Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coastline on Monday, flooding entire towns and leaving millions of homes in the dark. More than 3.5 million people remained without power as of Friday afternoon.
But in some cases suppliers say they cannot keep up. Class 1 and 2 utility poles, which are the largest in diameter and among the most commonly-used in the Northeast, sold out fast and the orders are still coming, said Chris Slonaker, an East Coast sales manager for Bridgewell, which is based in Tigard, Oregon.
"The stock that was available at the time of the storm is all gone, and we are trying to replenish it," said Slonaker, whose company supplies power poles to Consolidated Edison Inc, Public Service Enterprise Group Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and several rural electric cooperatives.
ConEd, which still had about 500,000 customers without power as of Friday afternoon, would not immediately comment on why its customer service personnel had told some homeowners that utility pole supplies were a challenge. A spokeswoman said the biggest obstacles to restoring power to customers with overhead lines was impassable roads and thousands of downed power lines.
To complicate matters, because of high demand, stockpiles of the southern pine trees used to make the poles are in short supply at plants Bridgewell buys from. Trees are arriving at plants daily and several thousand poles are under construction now, Slonaker said.
They should be ready to ship to the Northeast by the middle of next week for a 900-mile trip that takes two to three days - which could mean another week - or more - without electricity and heat even as a cold snap settles into the area.
Most of the dozen or so plants Bridgewell buys utility poles from have been operating 24-hours a day since the storm. They usually operate only 8-hours a day during normal weather and 16-hours a day after most big weather events. Typically, Bridgewell ships 50 truckloads, each with about 30 poles, each day for one or two days after a storm. But Hurricane Sandy has led to an influx of orders far larger.
"Orders have continued at this pace," every day since Sandy struck on Monday, Slonaker said.
And even after producing the poles, Bridgewell is finding there are more orders than there were trucks. Hundreds of flatbed trucks that would normally deliver plywood and other supplies are being outfitted with wooden stakes so they can haul the 35-to-50-foot utility poles.
TOO FEW TRUCKS, BLOCKED ROADS
Orangeburg, South Carolina-based Cox Industries is sending upwards of 1,200 poles per day to warehouses in Hainesport, New Jersey and Hicksville, New York on Long Island from its production factories in the southeast, said Don Surrency, a sales manager at the company.
Surrency said Cox has not had trouble keeping up with orders to PSE&G, Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) or Verizon and is sending about 40 trucks per day, each loaded with 25 to 30 poles. But getting them to the right place hasn't been easy.
"There are other obstacles you don't typically see in storms," said Surrency.
Among them: The dense population, blocked or difficult to pass roadways - sometimes because of cars that have simply run out of gas, he said.
Truck drivers have, so far, not encountered the fuel shortages many residents in New York and New Jersey have experienced, Surrency and Slonaker said.
John Margaritis, a spokesman for PSE&G, the biggest power provider in New Jersey, said that supply of utility poles has not been an issue. The utility in hard-hit New Jersey still had 692,000 customers without power as of Friday afternoon.
LIPA did not return calls and emails for comment on Friday.
Before the storm, most of the utilities Bridgewell deals with had already ordered extra supplies of poles. But Slonaker says those ran out quickly.
"They were prepared, but this was bigger than expected," he said. "It's hard to prepare for this."
(Reporting by Jennifer Merritt; Editing by Jonathan Leff, Bernard Orr)