Maryland utilities responding to Hurricane Isabel and other storms last summer performed better than they had during the last major outages caused by similar severe weather four years earlier, a state Public Service Commission report says.
The commission, which reviewed the preparedness and performance of utilities after severe thunderstorms in August and Hurricane Isabel in September, concluded in its report June 4 that there has been "substantial improvement" in utility operations since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
However, the report found that better communication is needed among utilities, emergency agencies, the news media and customers.
"The violent weather of 2003 will long be remembered by Maryland citizens for the misery left in its wake," the five-member commission, headed by Kenneth D. Schisler, concluded. The commission said it hoped the response "will be remembered for the landmark improvements in the evolution of electric service restoration following major outages."
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Pepco, Conectiv, Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, Allegheny Energy Inc. and Choptank Electric Cooperative were the focus of the report.
"When Isabel hit, [the utilities] did do better than they did the previous time because they learned lessons from the previous time," commission spokesman Allen M. Freifeld said.
"There is room for improvement in their coordination with the local emergency officials at the county level and communications with the customers," he added.
The commission said utilities should consider taking additional steps with local governments to increase landowner awareness of the risks of trees near power lines.
"Trees were the overwhelming cause of the outages in Isabel, and many of these trees were on private property," Pepco spokesman Robert A. Dobkin said. "There needs to be more aggressive trimming."
The commission also said there is no new evidence to suggest that policies on overhead and underground wiring of the electric distribution system need to be altered.
Customers criticized Pepco for responding too slowly after the big storms last year. Pepco also failed to provide prompt and reliable estimates of when lights would come on, critics said. Some customers complained that their calls were met with little information and, at times, even indifference. And some said they were told that their power was on when it wasn't.
After a series of outages in 1999, the commission wrote that the utilities operating in the state failed to have "meaningful and timely communication" with their customers.
In its report this month, the commission said that "despite some significant technical problems, requiring improvement, the commission finds that the Maryland utilities' efforts at communications with emergency management and public officials were generally adequate."
Pepco, which primarily serves the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said it mobilized nearly 2,500 workers, 1,200 of whom came from other states, to help about 500,000 customers who lost power, some for up to a week, after Hurricane Isabel.
BGE, which has a larger service territory than Pepco, said it called in 1,900 out-of-state workers to help restore power to about 700,000 customers.
SMECO, which serves nearly all of the tri-county Southern Maryland area, deployed about 400 workers -- 190 of them from other states -- to repair downed lines and poles after Isabel. Local officials and customers gave the cooperative generally good reviews on its response to the hurricane. In its own performance report to the Public Service Commission last fall, SMECO said it needed to improve communication with customers and local emergency officials, as well as within its own ranks.
Hurricane Isabel was the most damaging storm in the history of the Southern Maryland utility, officials of the cooperative said last fall. At the peak of the outage, 73,700 customers had lost power in Southern Maryland -- more than double the number without electricity in the ice storm of February 1994, SMECO's worst service interruption before last year's storm.
Pepco, which commissioned a separate evaluation of its own performance, provided the commission with a report in October explaining its slow response to power outages. Pepco detailed how a computer system became overloaded while filtering calls.
"The problem was compounded when the [computer system] duplicated some calls," the commission's recent report said. "As a result, the call system reported an extremely high level of substation activity."
All of it, the report said, "led to extensive error messages."
Noting problems with communications with the news media, and in turn with customers, the commission said that "utilities may wish to develop communication plans to reach customers who are denied access to television or the Internet due to a loss of electric power. Such media as newspaper advertisements, posters, and . . . flyers in neighborhoods have been offered as some possible suggested remedies."
In one of its directives, the commission ordered Pepco and its affiliate Conectiv to file quarterly reports on its progress in implementing commission-ordered changes and upgrading systems.
Dobkin said that the commission's report is fair and that the damage done by Isabel was "unprecedented."
"We learn from every storm," he said. "We certainly learned from Isabel."