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Pepco trailed other utilities, didn't call for help until well into snowstorm

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:33 AM

Pepco did not call for major reinforcements to help restore power to its customers until late Wednesday night, well into the storm and several hours after Baltimore Gas and Electric had begun assembling outside contractors for help.

Similarly, Dominion Virginia Power began moving its own crews from southeastern Virginia and North Carolina closer to Northern Virginia as early as Tuesday, anticipating weather problems. As a result, it has called in only about 200 outside workers for additional help, a spokeswoman said.

BGE had arranged for about 400 extra workers by about 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to its spokesman. Pepco didn't ask for mutual aid until an 8:30 p.m. conference call among mid-Atlantic region utilities - a call arranged by BGE, both companies said.

Perhaps because of the earlier calls for help, BGE and Dominion Virginia Power had restored electricity to a greater percentage of their customers who lost power during the storm than Pepco had, company outage reports showed.

Pepco had restored electricity to just under half of its customers by late Thursday, and BGE and Dominion each had restored power to nearly two-thirds of those who had been left in the dark by the snow, outage reports on the companies' Web sites showed.

Pepco said it sought help later than other area utilities did because of shifting weather forecasts. The storm brought more wind and wetter snow than the utility had anticipated, and later in the day.

Michael Maxwell, the Pepco vice president overseeing the crew call-outs, said, "I know some people may try to make something of the time differences, but they shouldn't."

Pepco and Dominion said they expect to have power back to about 90 percent of their affected customers by Friday night. BGE said power to most of its customers will be restored by late Saturday, although its officials said pockets of outages could remain until Sunday.

As of Thursday afternoon, BGE had 645 outside workers - people who are not employees - ready to help restore power. Pepco had commitments for about 600, although nearly 400 of those had not arrived by Thursday night or had not received safety orientations, the company said.

Because all three utilities were hit by the storm, they could not turn to one another for help as they usually could, their spokesmen said, making the need for summoning outside assistance more urgent.

By about midnight Wednesday, as the snow ended, 205,000 Pepco customers had lost power. About 146,000 Dominion customers and 135,000 of BGE's were in the dark then.

Spokesmen for the utilities said the response from their own regional-based crews was hampered by the same traffic nightmares that made for hours-long commutes. They were further handicapped by high winds, which kept bucket crews grounded.

Dominion's outside help came mainly from a North Carolina company, and BGE turned to Pennsylvania. BGE and Pepco pulled from a wider area - as far west as Ohio and Indiana - although BGE was quicker to get those teams in place.

Pepco's reliability has come under increasing criticism among customers, regulators and legislators. A proposal in Maryland would impose fines on Pepco and other power companies that fail to meet tough new standards for reliability and customer service.

The state Public Service Commission acted after complaints from customers who suffered extended outages during snowstorms last year. The proposal also followed an investigation last month by The Washington Post that showed Pepco ranked near the bottom nationally among electricity companies in keeping the power on and bringing the lights back once they go out.

Pepco officials have promised local officials and their customers that it will do better and have announced a five-year plan to spend $100 million on improvements in Maryland and $90 million in the District. The upgrade would cost the average customer in Maryland and the District an extra $1 per month on their bills, the company has said.

At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) noted that Pepco and utility regulation already promised to be a big issue in the legislative session, with some lawmakers pushing to impose standards and penalties.

"No doubt that this incident will add some extra color and some extra examples" to that debate, O'Malley said.

But Wednesday's storm was so intense and the traffic so bad that all area utilities expressed frustration.

Dominion spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson described a scene that captured the problem. "We had a crew pre-positioned and ready to go in Herndon from our building, and they couldn't get out of the lot because of the backup on the street," she said.

For BGE, the storm caused more outages in one day than did the back-to-back ones in February, said spokesman Robert L. Gould.

Jean-Paul Mendez, 23, and his mother, America Rodriguez, 53, were inside their Wheaton home Wednesday night watching television when things went dark at 8:30. They went to sleep, but it was a cold night.

"I couldn't feel my feet," said Mendez, a Pepco customer.

He has cerebral palsy. By late Thursday morning, he grew concerned he would lose power in his rechargeable wheelchair.

"We were cold. We were hungry because we couldn't cook," Rodriguez said.

Mendez called his social worker Thursday morning, and she told him of a shelter that Montgomery County was opening at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

They got into his mother's minivan and drove to the shelter. Mendez took a shower and watched the news on TV. "I am happy to be here because they have lights," he said Thursday night as a busload of senior citizens was arriving.

He planned to plug a cord from his chair into an outlet. "I need my juice," he said.

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