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For Pepco, customer wrath extends the storm

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 11:18 PM

Under fire from residents who remained without electricity after Wednesday's snowstorm, Pepco said Saturday that customers who lost power should have the lights back on by 11 p.m. Sunday.

Saturday remained a day of vexation for some residents, including many in the Bethesda and Potomac Regency areas of Montgomery County, who had been told their power would be restored Friday, and then Saturday, only to see those deadlines missed.

Yet there was good news, too. Several people who had lost power for hours and days had service restored by Saturday evening.

At various points Saturday, some residents who had been trying to ride it out began making plans to leave their homes. Some complained about what they characterized as rude and inconsiderate behavior by the power company, which had the largest number of customers in the region still without power.

"Bad information is no information," Steven Hubberman of Potomac said almost 72 hours after losing power. "It has been a very long time since we lost power and, as if it's not bad enough that it takes a long time to get it restored, they can't even give accurate information. You go to the Web site and you call, which is all you have, and what you hear is completely unreliable." Hubberman said his electricity was working by Saturday night.

As of 11 p.m. Saturday, more than 11,700 Pepco customers remained without power, most of them in Montgomery. Baltimore Gas and Electric, which once had 230,000 customers without electricity, reported 645 customers still in the dark. A spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power said earlier that all power had been restored.

Pepco spokesman Bob Hainey said the company had 1,200 employees and contractors restoring power, but that the storm itself had slowed the process. He said its arrival during afternoon rush hour, led to gridlock that made it impossible for crews to be in position.

"We were able to restore 180,000 of 210,000 customers who lost power in the storm by late Friday," he said. "A conservative estimate is that power will be restored to all customers by 11 p.m. Sunday."

That had been little comfort to Hubberman, his wife, Gail, and two teenage children. Counting spoiled food, restaurant meals and money for amusement, the Hubbermans estimate that the outage cost them $2,000. He called Pepco's system of estimating repair times "useless" and said the company should reimburse customers who lose power for more than a day. "After 24 hours, you don't have a choice. There are things you must do. Under 24 hours is an inconvenience. After that, you don't have a choice."

After the temperature had dropped to 45 degrees in his Bethesda home Saturday, David Hawkes took his family to the Mall to visit museums, eat and stay warm. Hawkes was incensed at the rudeness he said he had encountered on the phone with a Pepco customer service representative.

"She said we should have been better prepared in an emergency," he said. "That was some message coming from a power company that had been so poorly prepared to handle the bad weather."

His power was also restored by Saturday night.

Some customers whose power was back were still upset. Livy More of the Colonial Village section of Northwest Washington said that she and her husband, John, stayed home with a dog and cat for the two days they were without power, save a brief trip to a friend's home for dinner. Pepco, she said, should be required to revamp the way it communicates with customers.

"It was abysmal," she said. "If we looked at the Web site, then talked to a customer service person, we got a different story. One person in our neighborhood was told that the power was back on when it wasn't. Another was told that only one house was without power."

The power company "doesn't understand public relations," said Alan Lewis, who with wife Judy, spent one night away from home before returning to a cold, dark house. "People are at a great inconvenience," he said.

Pepco trucks arrived on the Chevy Chase neighborhood street of D.C. resident Barbara Bovbjerg after District and Pepco officials argued about who was responsible for removing the 30-foot limb that had fallen onto a power line near her home.

Pepco told her the city was responsible; the District told her it was Pepco's job.

On a three-way phone call, Bovbjerg said that customer service representatives for Pepco and the District argued about who should respond.

Bovbjerg was unsure how the situation would resolve itself until a contractor showed up early Saturday and removed the limb. About 3 p.m., the cavalry arrived.

"Pepco is on my street right now," she said. "There are many trucks and many people."

Bovbjerg said she does not think the confusion led to the nearly three-day outage she experienced.

"I live on a very small street, so I understand us being a lower priority," she said. "I just think that Pepco needs to be better prepared, and they need to have a better system with the people who talk to customers on the telephone."

By Saturday night, she reported that the lights were on again. She described herself as "really, really happy."

For those still without power, Hainey urged patience. Pepco is in the early stages of a five-year service improvement plan, he said, and will continue the effort to improve reliability.

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