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D.C. area power outages after storm frustrate people with medical needs

By Stephanie Lee and Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; B01

When the lights flickered in Adele Becker's Silver Spring home Sunday, she didn't think much of it at first.

But when minutes in the dark became hours, Becker, 73, realized that the storm-induced blackout could pose problems for her 50-year-old daughter, Iylene, who had her windpipe surgically opened last year and relies on an electrical oxygen concentrator system to breathe at night.

Becker tried calling Pepco's emergency line several times, she said, seeking help. What she got was a busy signal, she said.

The Beckers were among the thousands whose power had not been restored Tuesday, two days after one of the most violent thunderstorms in years. The storm, which claimed its fourth fatality Tuesday, also downed power lines and disrupted life in the region.

Carl Henn, a Rockville civic activist, died Tuesday afternoon at Washington Hospital Center after apparently being struck by lightning during the storm Sunday, Rockville Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio said late Tuesday.

Henn, 48, was "one of the kindest, gentlest, warmest individuals" and started Rockville's community garden program, Marcuccio said. He was killed at a community garden celebration in the King Farm neighborhood, she said.

Abut 75,000 Pepco customers were still without power Tuesday night, about 60,000 in Montgomery County, 11,000 in Prince George's County and 5,000 in the District.

Pepco spokesman David Morehead expressed satisfaction that Montgomery outages had been cut. "They're all continuing to climb down," he said. Outages peaked Sunday at about 300,000.

But the shrinking numbers were little consolation to residents facing another night in a dark, hot house with a squalling baby, frazzled spouse or sick relative.

The wait has been particularly frustrating for residents who rely on electricity for medical needs, such as refrigerating insulin, using a heart monitor or, as with the Beckers, charging an oxygen support system. "In the case of medical emergencies, you need electricity," Becker said. "We have to have electricity."

Adele Becker said she tried calling Pepco last year to put her daughter on its emergency medical equipment notification program list. Pepco says it calls customers on the list to notify them of upcoming service interruptions, including "severe storms such as hurricane warnings."

Becker said Pepco officials told her three times that no such list existed. But Pepco said its emergency notification program, which serves 1,314 customers, has existed for more than 15 years.

Donna Mann, a process manager in Pepco's customer care department, said company representatives called those customers the morning after the storm to inform them of a "multiday restoration" period.

Pepco also calls when it hears about major storms days in advance; Sunday's was unexpected, Mann said.

Customers on the list do not receive special priority for getting their electricity back, however. The call is intended to help them with emergency planning, Mann said.

Mann said she did not know why the Beckers apparently were told there was no emergency notification list. "Our call center reps are all aware of this program. You can get this information online," Mann said.

Neither of the women were enrolled in the program as of Tuesday, said Morehead, the Pepco spokesman.

After the lights went out Sunday, Becker bought an emergency supply of 175 pounds of liquid oxygen. Her daughter's liquid oxygen system -- unlike her usual oxygen concentrator system -- does not require electricity.

Becker said she and her daughter did not know how much longer they would have to wait for help: "I think it's truly disgraceful," she said. "I don't know if they're feeling 'those are lost people.' I don't understand what their feeling is."

The Montgomery County Council also grilled Pepco officials Tuesday about the massive power outages. Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), an energy lawyer by training, called for state regulators to investigate the reliability of Pepco's system. Representatives for the utility said that their system is reliable and that they would cooperate with any investigation.

During the hot summer months, the elderly and those with heart or breathing conditions are most prone to suffering in homes without air conditioning, said Jacqueline Barnett, a physician's assistant at George Washington University Hospital. She advised affected residents to drink sufficient fluids and spend time in cool places, such as a movie theater or mall.

"Try to spend as much time out of your house as possible," she said. "If you have medication that needs to be refrigerated, get a block of ice and put it in coolers to help keep them cool."

Thomas H. Graham, regional Pepco president, said that most power should be restored by Thursday and that customers could call 877-PEPCO-62 (877-737-2662) for an estimated restoration time.

The utility's phone information system had been giving out erroneous information before it was shut down Monday. It told one caller Monday that her power would be restored Sept. 10.

Pepco's Web site, which also crashed Monday, was back in business Tuesday, telling users that it was running slowly because of heavy demand.

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