Three days after the storm struck, the utility's leadership decided it was unable to keep the damaged system running. On Nov. 1, it shut down service to nearly 32,000 customers on the barrier islands, including Long Beach Island communities at the southern end of the company's territory.
Shutting down a gas distribution system is not a decision made lightly. The company was essentially condemning 270 miles of mains. Once the pipes are depressurized, they are in danger of filling up with water, which on a barrier island means salt water. It is easier to replace pipes than to dry them out.
"We kind of expected the worst at that point," said John Wyckoff, the director of engineering.
While electric utilities commonly suffer outages during a major storm, not many gas utilities go through the kind of catastrophe that New Jersey Natural Gas experienced, with pipes literally ripped from the ground.
Local officials and the news media reported rumors that the utility would need six to eight months to restore service, depriving the Shore of vital energy supplies through the winter and into the summer tourist season.
But the nightmare scenario never materialized.
Aided by 300 workers from 14 other utilities, including three experts from Entergy Corp. who helped rebuild the New Orleans gas system after Hurricane Katrina, the utility repressurized or replaced 270 miles of gas mains in eight weeks, not eight months.
The system proved to be more salvageable than expected. The company, which initially told investors that the storm damage could cost as much as $60 million, revised its estimates downward between $30 million and $40 million.
By February, Laurence M. Downes, chairman and chief executive of the utility's parent company, New Jersey Resources Corp., could declare publicly that the company had turned the corner and avoided a financial calamity.
"In my 28 years with the company, and I believe in the history of the company over 60 years, this was the company's finest hour," he told analysts.
All told, the utility conducted 121,000 service assessments, or nearly a quarter of all its customers, and rebuilt or replaced 51,000 meters. It addressed 3,600 "anomalies" - leaks.
In the dark
More than five months after the storm, company officials sat down last week and recounted the harrowing first days, when crews could not fully assess the damage because they were blocked by mountains of sand and debris. Communication from the field was limited to text messages because the Shore's cellular network was so impaired.
"It was difficult to make assessments," said Craig Lynch, the vice president of energy delivery. "Long Beach Island was flooded."
Employees were literally working in the dark at the company's Wall Township headquarters, where backup generators supplied only limited power. The staff even cleaned out a stash of 300 battery-operated lanterns bearing the company's logo that had been purchased as gifts for shareholders. "I had about 10 of them on my desk," Downes said.
Amid rumors of protracted outages, the executives decided they needed to regain control of communication with elected officials and the media as they developed restoration plans. Downes and Kathy Ellis, the utility's chief operating officer, said they called local and state officials daily.
"We were able to give very specific information, and pretty tight time frames to municipal officials, especially," said Ellis, a former communications director for Gov. Jim McGreevey.
The company also stayed in close contact with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, though the regulatory agency declined to comment on the utility's performance because it may have to rule on storm-related matters. The utility expects to eventually file for a rate increase to pay for the recovery costs.
Turning on the gas
Reintroducing gas into the system was a mammoth effort. Each area had to be cleared of nonemergency workers when the mains were repressurized in segments. Utility workers conducted a total of six leak surveys on foot and by vehicle of the repressurized lines. They fixed even the most minuscule whiffs of gas, known in the trade as "fuzz leaks."
A final survey was conducted a month after gas service was restored because engineers were nervous that the sandy soil was unstable. "There were a lot of sinkholes," Wells said.
A tour last week of Shore communities from Point Pleasant Beach to Seaside Point showed that work is far from over. Crews were removing the service lines to thousands of homes that await demolition, and installing new lines to structures that are being rebuilt. Several miles of gas mains on the most devastated blocks still need to be rebuilt, though with no inhabitable houses remaining, there is no rush.
In Seaside Point, a utility crew was installing a new one-inch plastic service line to the shuttered funnel-cake and taffy shops on the boardwalk by the devastated Funtown Pier, where trucks were still removing piles of debris.
And in Point Pleasant Beach, a crew was installing a service line to a home under construction on Harvard Avenue, replacing a structure wiped out by a surge from a nearby tidal lagoon called Lake Louise.
Rich Gibbs, the owner of the house, rushed out to greet the visiting utility supervisors, praising the company for waiving its usual fees for new service connections for storm-damaged customers.
Wells, who has encountered more than a few grumpy customers, was relieved that Gibbs had nice things to say. "That could have gone both ways," he said.
Contact Andrew Maykuth
at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth or email@example.com.