Fifty or more Washington-area households were still without oil heat yesterday following a stretch of unusually cold weather and last week's snowstorm that disrupted oil deliveries, according to suppliers and local officials.
Suppliers were scrambling yesterday to catch up with backlogs. Even as they filled the low and empty tanks in many homes, however, other people were running out of oil, according to local emergency preparedness officials.
Hundreds were without oil after the storm last week, officials said. If cold weather strikes again before the suppliers can clear their backlogs, the numbers may climb that high again, they said.
About 180,000 homes in the area are heated by oil. Many apartment and office buildings, hospitals and schools are also oil-heated.
The president of the largest home heating oil supplier here, Pierce MacNair of Griffith Consumers, said in an interview yesterday that his company is behind in deliveries but may be caught up by the end of this week if there is no more unusually cold weather.
MacNair refused to say how many of his roughly 40,000 area customers were without oil yesterday, but a dispatcher in his office said the number was between 45 and 50.
Frank Jose of the Montgomery County Consumer office said 10 or 15 people called yesterday to complain that they were without oil. Yvonne Better of the District of Columbia's emergency command center said "quite a few" people were without oil heat yesterday.
MacNair said that because of the way his company works in a crisis, homeowners who make panic calls to Griffith when they run out of oil will not necessarily receive any special priority in deliveries.
Such people should already be high on the priority list, he said.
Here is why, according to MacNair: The company keeps records on each customer's likely use, depending on the weather, and then automatically delivers oil when it is needed.
When a crisis hits as it has in recent weeks, homeowners' need for oil accelerates beyond the capacity of Griffith trucks to deliver.
But the company sticks to its present delivery schedule anyway -- since that schedule is designed to service people in order of their needs. MacNair expalined that to vary from that schedule would reduce overall efficiency of deliveries and result in even more people going without oil.
"You've got to work off the bottom," he said. "If you take all those panic calls (first), then you divert your resources (inefficiently)."
Complaints have been received by The Washington Post and local consumer agencies that Griffith employes answer such "panic calls" by promising immediate deliveries -- deliveries that never arrive or that take many days to arrive.
"I get horse telling employes not to promise something we can't deliver," said MacNair. "Our people say, 'We'll try to deliver...' The toughest thing is to say it'll take two or three days. Then people say, 'You don't care.'"