The last of the 210,000 Pepco customers that lost their electricity after the Jan. 26 snow storm were brought back to light on the afternoon of Jan. 31. That lapse in service has prompted an outcry from area officials and residents, who expressed their outrage in letters and phone calls to the company, in online forums and in the pages of area newspapers.

In a tersely written Jan. 29 letter addressed to Joseph Rigby, chairman of Pepco Holdings, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley expressed “frustration” and “anger” at the utility’s lag in restoring power outages, its seemingly “slow response in requesting assistance from other jurisdictions,” and its breakdown in customer communications.

“Despite earnest promises, numerous press releases, and even a six point plan, families in our State woke up, for the third morning in a row, to a cold, dark house, with Pepco advising them that service should be restored by 11 p.m. tomorrow night,” he wrote. “Five days in the dark is simply not acceptable.”

O’Malley also compared the utility, which provides electricity to 778,000 homes and businesses in Washington, D.C., and nearby suburbs in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, to other power companies in the region and seemed to find Pepco wanting.

“Why can’t Pepco perform as its fellow utilities do? To date, BGE (Baltimore Gas & Electric) has restored service to 227,800 of the 233,500, or 98 , of its customers affected by the storm. Pepco still has 27,500 customers in Maryland without electricity, a restoration rate of a dismal 80 ,” he said three days after the storm

The governor added, “ I am also outraged that your customer communication remains unacceptable; the outage map posted to your website crashed yet again, leaving customers seeking information about their outage in the dark.”

Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson Sr. said the company understood O’Malley’s frustration. “We do understand his feelings,” he told the AFRO, “and Pepco will address the governor’s concerns and the concerns of our customers and other legislative leaders.”

By way of explanation, Anderson said that while Pepco had made preparations to deal with post-storm damage, this storm proved different. “The reason why this storm was different is because it was a heavy, wet snow that came down very rapidly Wednesday night,” he said. And the nature and speed of the downpour, combined with snarls of traffic prevented work crews to get out to neighborhoods on the first night.

“After that because of the heavy snow on limbs and tree branches, branches continued to fall after the storm. Consequently power lines fell as well,” Anderson continued. Therefore, when Pepco utility workers made it out into affected communities, initial assessments had to be revised as they found more damage than expected.

“As we got into smaller communities days later we found out that there was additional damage—more tree limbs that pulled down more wires, and more wires were encrusted in the snow that had refrozen overnight,” the Pepco spokesman said. “So it was a combination of several events which caused us to take a little longer than we had originally expected.”

But while this storm may have been different, Pepco’s inadequate performance was too familiar, some said.

“Another storm, another failed response by Pepco,” wrote Paul Horn of Bethesda in a Washington Post Web posting.

In October 2010 Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett created a Pepco Work Group in response to constituents “increasing frustrations” with Pepco’s response after last February’s “Snowmageddon” and subsequent storms, but also its failings overall. He stated at the time, “It is incredibly important that we do not go through again what we experienced in February and July and August. While Pepco may be focused on these individual storms, we can’t afford to stop there. We have to figure out why Pepco power outages occur regularly, on even the nicest of days, threatening life, inconveniencing families, and costing our businesses millions.”

After last week’s storm, the group invited residents and businesses to share feedback online on Pepco’s Service and the impact of power outages. That information will be incorporated in a set of recommendations on how to improve the utility’s service that would be submitted to Pepco and the Maryland Public Service Commission, Pepco’s regulatory authority, which has been studying the matter.
As a companion to his Jan. 29 complaint to Pepco, Gov. O’Malley also sent a letter to the PSC calling for an immediate hearing on Pepco’s post-storm performance and, he said, he plans to introduce legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that calls on the Commission to adopt enhanced reliability standards and enables the authority to “fine utilities for poor performance and direct those payments back to the affected ratepayers.”

In Washington, D.C., Councilmember Muriel Bowser, D-Ward 4, introduced legislation on Feb. 1 that would require power companies, in the event of outages that last longer than 24 hours, to reimburse affected customers for the “reasonable” cost of hotel rooms.

“It is an initial step toward holding our power companies to account for their recent failures to prevent outages and to repair them as soon as possible,” said Councilmember Bowser in a statement. “Frequent, sustained outages over the last year, especially during periods of extreme weather, have threatened the welfare of thousands of District residents who cannot afford alternate accommodations. This measure is a step to protect these residents.”

Anderson, the Pepco spokesman, said the utility plans to do better, pointing to its five-year reliability enhancement plan, but results will take some time. “We’re only six months into that plan and we’re asking patience from our customers as we move forward they will see positive, tangible results.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO