My Pepco nightmare

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By Lauren Ashburn
Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Wednesday morning, for the first time since Sunday's storm, we woke up in a cool room. We flicked a light switch and -- wait for it -- a light came on. We looked at the clock, and it told us the time. The cordless phone rang. The coffee maker percolated, putting to shame the International Delight I'd whipped up the day before on my gas stove, very nearly singeing my eyebrows in the process.

Mike Moss on WTOP radio told me about the 30,000 Pepco customers who still didn't have power -- but we were no longer among them. My 10-year-old son fired up iTunes and sat down to play "Spore." My 2-year-old sang quietly, "Come on, vĂ¡monos! Everybody let's go!" as she twirled to an episode of "Dora the Explorer" on TV.

And then, just seven hours later, pfffffft. As Pepco giveth, Pepco taketh away.

"I hate Pepco," my son yelled as he stared dejectedly at his blank computer screen. At my own laptop down the hall, I had been preparing to hit send on a proposal that was due in an hour. Already behind on two other projects because we hadn't had Internet access for three days, tears of frustration welled in my eyes.

Like 300,000 other customers in the Washington area, we lost power during Sunday's 45-minute storm. Like so many others, we spent the next few days trolling the city with power cords, searching for juice, trying to stay connected, wondering when our lives would return to normal. And like so many others, we got the runaround from Pepco, our power company.

From virtually the moment lightning struck Sunday, Pepco was breaking its promises to customers and giving us misleading information. "Two hours and you'll have it," they'd tell us, and, "You'll have it in the morning."

That Sunday night, we naively wait for Pepco to make good on its promise to turn the electricity back on by 7 p.m. When that doesn't happen, we are told we will have power by 9 p.m. We play Uno by candlelight. At 9:30, my son's friend Max, who had planned to sleep over, ditches us. "I can't sleep without air conditioning," he explains.

We make a third call to Pepco's recorded line and are told that it will be morning before we have electricity. We climb into bed clinging to the promise of a brighter day.

Instead, I end up camped out at Starbucks, connecting to WiFi and angling for a seat near the electrical outlets. We eat at a Chinese restaurant, asking the hostess if we can borrow her power outlet. We wander the aisles of Crate and Barrel as my computer, BlackBerry, iPad and even -- I cannot lie -- my kids' handheld game systems charge. (A word of warning: Do not bring three children to Crate and Barrel to kill time, outlets or no. Unless you like cleaning up broken glass.)

I find irony in the fact that I'm scheduled to moderate an environmental sustainability summit at Boeing's headquarters in Rosslyn. I arrive with wet hair (no hair dryer), power cords spilling out of my purse and the "low battery" sign flashing on my BlackBerry. With my gizmos plugged in and sucking juice behind me, I spend an hour asking panelists how we can make renewable energy projects work.

"Hello, this is Pepco," a kindly woman says when I call Wednesday to report that our power has gone back out. Wait, a real person? This is a first!

"Hello," I say, a bit too eagerly. "I'm calling to report a loss of power. Well, we lost it Sunday and it's been off for three days. But we had it for several hours today, and now it's gone." She looks up my address in Northwest Washington, then tells me that a tree fell on 49th Street, smashing a utility pole and bringing down wires.


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