Mess with Washington at your own peril, Hurricane Earl

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B01

Come on, Hurricane Earl, take your best shot.

Brush up against us; make high clouds over Washington. We don't much like weather around these parts. And if you so much as send a band of tropical rain our way, we'll go grocery shopping on you.

We mean business, Earl.

Ever heard of Storm Tracker, Live Super Doppler, MaxTrack and Doppler 2 Radar Loop? That's how we know it's weather. And we'll be ready.

Ever heard of Pepco? Forget everything you heard, then. Especially what Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said at a hearing Monday on the utility's most recent screw-ups: "I have relatives in Mumbai who cannot believe how often we lose power."

That is so unfair. Mumbai uses thermal, gas and hydro power to make electricity. Pepco uses what -- hamsters on a treadmill?

And don't pay attention to what Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, either: "Some similar issues were raised in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel. There were a number of recommendations then, some of which were enacted and some of which were not."

The issues were first raised during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 -- and, boy, were they addressed.

"We are now spending more money on information technology, like smart relays," a Pepco spokesman said in the aftermath of Floyd, which, having been downgraded to a mere tropical storm, delivered a "glancing blow" that still managed to leave tens of thousands without power. "Customers have told us they wanted to make reporting power outages more convenient."

See, customers told them. And now -- a little more than a decade later, that's all -- Pepco is saying: We hear you. Must have been those downed telephone lines. But it's all good now.

Pepco recently announced that it had developed a "six-point reliability enhancement plan," complete with "new initiatives" and "new activities" that will significantly reduce those annoying power outages.

"This is not just Pepco's plan, it's the community's plan," said Thomas H. Graham, Pepco's regional president. "Pepco realizes that reliability enhancement is a critical issue for our customers."

You want some of that six-point reliability, Earl?

Point one ought to be enough to make you think twice: "enhanced vegetation management," which includes, "trimming along public rights of way to obtain increased clearance between the overhead electric wires and existing trees. In addition to tree trimming, Pepco also will work with counties, communities and homeowners to remove tress that are dead, in poor health or would damage the distribution system if they were to fall."

Sort of takes the fun out of being a hurricane. Although it might also mean that somebody's favorite tree might end up being used to make newsprint. All for the greater good.

The point, though, is that we have never been more prepared for anything Mother Nature has to throw at us.

We have a clog-free street-drainage system so that nobody need ever canoe down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or at least that's what I'm guessing. We have evacuation routes ready for our 5 million residents to beat a path along Interstate 66 West for the safety of the Shenandoah. Or at least we're working on a getaway plan.

A couple of years ago, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to seek $200,000 in grant money from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a blueprint for evacuating domestic animals in case of a Katrina-like catastrophe. One thing's for sure: You will not be seeing Fido and Fifi floating down the Potomac in a storm surge.

Our TV meteorologists are storming the beaches, palm trees swaying in the background, waves breaking over their windbreakers -- risking their Rolexes to bring us the weather live. We've got them manning the TV storm centers, playing the radar loop -- rev up buzz saw hurricane, stop, back up, rev up again -- tracking directly into our homes (unless you live in another area, in which case your weather people have it tracking toward yours).

We've even got teams of iWitness amateur weather watchers using cellphone video to show us what rain looks like from inside their cars.

Weather alert: For the next 48 hours, keep a close eye on your meteorologists as they keep an eye on the eye of Earl.

So come on if you want to, Mr. Hurricane. But seeing how worked up we get over weather, you might want to stick to churning suds offshore.

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