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Inside Pepco: How the utility kept the lights on during Hurricane Sandy

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The meteorologist was on the speakerphone, and the news was grim.

“Sandy is getting stronger,” the forecaster said.

A Pepco manager sighed.

It was Monday morning, and dozens of utility executives and employees were listening to the forecast. The meteorologist ticked off wind data, predicted rainfall totals, time frames and likely tracks, then said bluntly: “It’s definitely a very bad situation.”

Tom Graham, Pepco’s regional president and the public face of the utility, listened silently as his colleagues around the conference-room table at Pepco headquarters in the District expressed their trepidation.

“It is quite sobering,” declared one of the company’s attorneys.

The eye of the freakish storm was hours away from Washington, but Pepco was bracing for two direct hits: Massive outages were likely and, if history held, massive outrage was sure to follow among the 788,000 customers of the area’s most-criticized utility.

Pepco had spent much of the summer under attack for its performance after a powerful derecho storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of Washington area residents during a brutal heat wave.

The utility serves a powerful and power-hungry region, including some of the country’s most affluent neighborhoods in the District and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Now, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down, Pepco was facing another test of its ability to keep the lights on.This time, the utility made an unprecedented offer to let a group of Post journalists embed with its officials and crews as Sandy blew through the area — and perhaps through the grid. It was a public-relations gamble designed to shed light on the complexities of Pepco’s operation. But not even their own executives knew how it would play out.

“Right now, it’s the calm during the storm,” said Graham’s boss, Joseph M. Rigby, president and chief executive of Pepco Holdings, the utility’s parent company.

Prepare emotionally, Rigby told those assembled. Stay calm. Stay focused.

“Get ready,” he said, “and get up for the game.”

7:15 a.m. Monday

It was before dawn when Dan Landry, a Pepco senior forester and one of the utility’s 1,450 employees, gathered a crew at the back of his pickup truck on Emory Lane in Olney, their Day-Glo safety vests still dull in the gloom.

The utility, under intense pressure to improve its reliability, had trimmed or removed trees along 3,400 miles of power lines since December 2010. But as the hurricane approached, it was time for some last-minute, emergency trims.

Landry’s crew would split up and comb several miles of a key 69,000-volt feeder line leading to the Derwood Substation, cutting threatening branches as they went.

A few miles away, driving along Cashell Avenue with his head hunched to scan the lines above, Landry spotted a stand of pines swaying tall over the poles. He called an Asplundh supervisor and told her to bring in two cutting crews.

Minutes later, a dotted line of safety cones surrounded two orange bucket trucks by the road. The property owner had said to cut all they wanted from the 28 trees; he was planning to take them down anyway.

“I look at these,” Landry said as the operators sliced branch after branch, “and see 28 outages that won’t happen.”

3 p.m. Monday

The rain and wind were coming hard and fast outside a Bethesda building that outsiders are almost never allowed to enter: the nerve center of Pepco’s operations.

On one floor, through secured double doors, down an elevator and through another secured door, was the utility’s control center — the guts of the grid.

Now, though, with Sandy on her way, the action had shifted upstairs, to the emergency command center. It was full of men and women at laptops, wearing blue vests, with their roles and divisions identified on their backs: “MESSAGE DEVELOPER.” “OPERATIONS.” “CALL CENTER.” “CRISIS INFORMATION DIRECTOR.”

Two mounted TV monitors showed outage numbers for Pepco; the figure was only at 6,362. There were also doom-filled weather radar images on the TVs, and a newscaster announcing that flights had been suspended at area airports.

“Breaking news,” somebody shouted. “It’s raining!”

A few people laughed.

A few minutes later, a team leader barked: “15:11, ETRs are suspended.” At 3:11 p.m., Pepco had stopped telling customers who lost power when they might get it back because the utility didn’t feel comfortable making promises it couldn’t keep as working conditions deteriorated.

“We want to set reasonable expectations,” said Jeff Mittler, systems operation director for Pepco Holdings.

Estimated time of restoration became problematic for Pepco beginning with Snowmageddon nearly three years ago.

“There’s some bad karma out there,” Mittler said. “We’ve taken a hit. Some of it’s the organization’s fault, some of it is outside our control.”

As Sandy approached, Pepco warned that service restoration might not begin until Thursday morning. Privately, executives began discussing the possibility that it might be a seven-to-10 day outage for some customers.

A few minutes later, the lights blinked at Pepco’s nerve center. A mass “whoa!” surged through the emergency command.

“Electrical short,” an engineering executive said.

Everybody nodded and went back to work.

5:30 p.m. Monday

“It’s getting rowdy out there,” a systems guy said as the winds picked up.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting night,” said George Nelson, the operations guru for Pepco and its sister utilities, Atlantic City Electric and Delmarva Power.

Nelson had just finished a conference call about all the crews coming from around the country to help. Nelson and his lieutenants had to decide where to send them — a delicate political dance for a company with three utilities serving nearly 2 million customers in three states plus the District.

Pepco had been preparing for Sandy’s arrival for nearly a week, holding its first round of conference calls five days before the storm was scheduled to hit.

Nelson, a 34-year-old utility veteran, had left home, across the Bay Bridge, Monday morning and wasn’t sure when he’d be back. He was pretty sure his house would lose power (“the storm is coming right at us”) and told his wife they’d probably be dark for days.

How’s that for an estimated time of restoration?

By 5:42 p.m., the outage number was up to 21,289. But the storm appeared to be moving more quickly than predicted, and there were no major damage reports yet — just some trees and wires down and a few minor transmission issues.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Nelson said. “But this is good.”

An hour later, as wind speeds reached dangerous levels, Pepco pulled its crews off the streets. Two hours later, the outage number had barely budged. Dominion Virginia Power was reporting 81,000 outages in Northern Virginia.

“Wow,” Nelson said. “It’s really unusual that we’re lower.”

“We’re finally catching a break,” Mittler said.

As the storm raged on and the emergency command center shift turned over, the men and women who were running point for Pepco left for the night, wondering what they’d face in the morning.

Mittler went home to Gaithersburg, where he’d lost power. Most of the others went to a hotel just off Rockville Pike, on a street where some residents had complained about Pepco’s aggressive tree-trimming program.

“I bet they’re happy tonight that we trimmed those trees,” Nelson said just after 10 as he navigated his Ford Escape hybrid through empty, wind-swept streets.

6:10 a.m. Tuesday

Landry, eyes still bleary from short sleep, pulled into the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. The Derwood substation had survived the overnight wind gusts of 60 miles per hour. Now it was time to tend to the power lines that hadn’t.

Acre after acre of the fairgrounds was filled with bucket trucks on loan from utilities across the country.

Pepco dispatchers called their foremen into a brightly lighted office trailer to give them work orders for the morning. Landry stood by, fitting his tree crews into the square dance of repair teams that have to step in and out of a major restoration. Before his chain saws clear the debris, Pepco lineman must secure the downed wires. But before the linemen can restore the system, the tree crews must clear the way.

Landry ran 20 Asplundh crews out of the fairgrounds. Twenty-four more were staging in Forestville.

Landry’s ringtone, the theme to “The A-Team,” erupted constantly as more orders came in. A water pumping station near Rockville. A tree across two feeder lines on Old Georgetown Road.

“Okay, on the way,” he said over and over.

8:35 a.m. Tuesday

Tom Graham was riding shotgun with a driver in a Pepco-owned SUV. He was wrapped in a blinding orange, company-issued safety suit. He kept his eye on two things: the texts and e-mails that had been inundating his phone since 4 a.m., and the window, in search of downed trees and power lines.

Overnight, the number of outages had peaked at just under 42,000. Now they’d fallen to 24,000.

After preparing the public to live without power for “more than a week,” Pepco’s outages looked puny, compared with those affecting Dominion Virginia Power and Baltimore Gas & Electric. The question now was: Would anyone notice?

It was not like Graham, 52, a self-proclaimed introvert, to crow. He had learned over his 26 years at Pepco that it was best to be even-keeled in the face of blame or praise.

He wore his usual inscrutable expression as he roamed upper Northwest, stopping at several spots where 50-foot-plus trees had slammed into houses and power lines. In one case, a transformer had snapped in half, leaving the street lamp attached to it dangling upside down.

“It is not lost on us that you are out here,” one neighborhood resident said to him.

Afterward, as the SUV rolled south on 16th Street NW, Graham turned up the radio just in time to catch the start of a segment on a WTOP call-in show.

“What do we usually do the day after a storm?” a male announcer said.

“Trash the power companies,” his female partner replied.

But it’s going to be different today, he said. “The power companies stepped up! Where is that love this morning?”

Just then, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where is the Love?” came on, followed by the voice of a Northwest resident named Carol sharing her delight at waking to the sight of Pepco trucks on her street.

Graham, who associated the call letters WTOP with relentless criticism, was stunned.

He slapped the console in front of him and half shouted, “Where is the love!”

10:20 a.m. Tuesday

Nate McElroy, the Pepco forester responsible for the District and Prince George’s County, was pinballing between jobs, dozens of crews working at sites around the area. A Pepco supervisor flagged him down on 35th Street NW and asked him to divert a tree crew to Lowell Street, where a tree had pancaked a Mazda Millenia and was blocking access to the line repair.

On Newark, one of two toppled red oaks had been trimmed down to a massive, limbless stalk. The other rested atop a corner house, its roots having hoisted a patch of grass the size of a putting green into the air.

“I’ve seen red oaks do this a hundred times,” said McElroy, staring into the muddy socket left behind. The power line snapped by the diving tree supplied 800 houses, he estimated.

The chain-saw crews swarmed the fallen canopy; a crane beeped backward to reach the trunks too big cut. At the other end of the block, utility bucket trucks lowered the snapped cross-arms of a broken pole. A lineman began reweaving the normal rigging of wires and cables that would bring juice back to the neighborhood.

Tuesday 1 p.m.

Graham was still wearing his orange safety suit as he huddled with Laura Monica to learn the crisis communications team’s catchphrase of the day for the afternoon conference call with government officials.

Before the storm hit, the priority was managing public expectations, and the debate revolved around whether to say it “may” take more than a week to restore power versus “very likely” to take more than a week.

Today’s phrase was “vast majority.” As in, “the vast majority of Pepco’s customers would have power restored by 8 a.m. the next morning.”

As Graham recapped Pepco’s response to the storm for close to 100 elected officials, he delivered “vast majority” without celebratory emphasis. But it quickly became clear he didn’t need to, as the call turned into a series of high fives.

“You did an extraordinary job,” declared Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “You don’t hear that enough.”

“Our lights stayed on all night,” gushed an official from the Montgomery County village of Martin’s Additions.

Even Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), a dogged Pepco critic, forced out a few words of praise. “I know you prepared a lot,” he said. “I’m glad we did not have to test it too much.”

Ian Shapira also contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company