25 days without power, thanks to Pepco and D.C. government

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 25, 2012

In Greek mythology, sailors risked death navigating past the twin monsters of Scylla (probably inspired by an Italian rock shoal) and Charybdis (a whirlpool).

In Northwest Washington, homeowner Jayne Clark lost electricity for 25 days while steering unsuccessfully between the twin monsters of Pepco and the District’s construction permit agency.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Through the staggering bureaucratic ineptitude of both business and government, Clark might have set a Washington area record for power loss. A tree limb knocked out the juice at her rowhouse near the Naval Observatory in the storm June 29, and it wasn’t restored until Tuesday.

The missteps included Pepco’s failure for three days to respond to reports from Clark and the D.C. fire department that a live wire was hanging over her doorway. Later, valuable time was lost when an inspector from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs failed to show for a scheduled visit (and didn’t phone).

The delay was aggravated by Clark’s contractor, who waited a week to apply for a necessary permit.


A South Carolina utility worker, on the job with a Pepco team July 3, removes a tree limb that had jarred a live electrical wire at Jayne Clark's house in Northwest Washington. Clark and the D.C. fire department had reported the downed wire three days earlier, but Pepco didn't send anyone to fix it. Clark had to flag down a Pepco truck and persuade the crew to come and look at it. The crew turned off the power in the line and removed the tree limb. Clark didn't get her juice back until Tuesday — after 25 days without electricity. (Courtesy of Jayne Clark/COURTESY OF JAYNE CLARK)

“I felt utterly helpless and, when I still had no power on Monday, utterly hopeless,” said Clark, a longtime travel reporter at USA Today. “We really are at the mercy of agencies that don’t seem to be functioning well and don’t seem to care that they’re not functioning well.”

Clark knew she had trouble on the night of the storm. She saw sparks fly in her front yard as the wire into her house was jarred askew. The next day, June 30, she dutifully called Pepco and the fire department to report the outage and the still-live wire up in the air. The fire department said its records confirm that it heard from Clark and notified Pepco about the situation.

Nothing happened. When Clark phoned Pepco on July 3, she was told that the problem had been fixed. She knew otherwise.

At that point, Clark took matters into her own hands. She went out on the street, flagged down a Pepco truck, and persuaded the crew to come help.

The crew shut off power to the wire but said Pepco couldn’t reconnect the wire until her electrical system was upgraded. That would require a DCRA permit and inspection.

Clark’s contractor disagreed that the upgrade was required. He believed that Pepco had a backlog and was buying time. “They were backed up, and they just wanted to cover themselves,” he said.

However, the contractor said he waited until July 10 to apply for the permit. He said it would have been useless to do so earlier, because DCRA would be so backed up after a storm and during the July 4 holiday week.

DCRA said the contractor could have applied for the permit online, which is how he ultimately obtained it July 12. The contractor said he prefers to apply in person because DCRA is less likely to reject the application. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared that DCRA might “blackball” him.

In any case, the contractor did the work and an inspection was scheduled for July 17. That’s when the inspector didn’t show, according to Clark and the contractor. An electrician waited on the doorstep in the heat from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“There is no information in our system on why” the inspection didn’t happen, a DCRA spokesman said.

When the inspection did take place, on July 20, Pepco was formally asked to restore power. A utility representative promised to do so with emergency priority.

Again, nothing happened. Three days later, Clark had to spend more than two hours on the phone to sort out a murky lapse between the Customer Design department and another customer service unit.

“The experience was classic Kafka with Stalinist overtones,” Clark said.

Asked to respond, Pepco issued a one-sentence statement saying its policy is not to comment about individual customers.

Clark was fortunate in some ways. She was able to move into a neighbor’s house for most of the time the power was out. She also skipped town for a week on a vacation in Newfoundland.

Still, she was appalled at the inefficiency and dismayed about the quality of life in her home town. “The huge amount of wasted resources amazes me. No wonder this city is broken in so many ways,” Clark said.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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