As Hurricane Isabel barreled up the East Coast last September, Pepco officials said they were ready.
The power company promised to redeem itself after a series of intense August thunderstorms had left more than 200,000 customers in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties in the dark, some for as long as six days.
Instead, more than 500,000 Pepco customers endured as many as 10 days' worth of pitch-black homes, refrigerators filled with rotting food, darkened traffic lights and dangerous downed power lines. The ensuing outcry led to several public and private investigations into the utility's storm response and a flurry of recommendations for improving its operations.
With the remnants of Hurricane Charley expected to skirt the region tonight, Pepco officials say once again that they are ready, but their assurances are a bit more nuanced.
"You never compare two storms exactly, but if Isabel came the same way, I would say, yes, it would be better," said Mike Maxwell, Pepco's vice president of emergency preparedness. "No storm is the same, but our damage assessment is better and the way we dispatch crews is better."
Some local officials said they will wait and see.
"I would expect and hope they have improved their operation, but we will find out," said Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda). "One thing we know for certain: There will be another weather emergency."
Others remain cautiously optimistic that Pepco has learned from the past and is not condemned to repeat it.
"We have been getting indications that they have taken measures to enhance their computer systems so that once a storm passes through, in cases of widespread outages, I think they are in a better position today than they were a year ago," said J. Joseph Curran III, a member of the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies that operate in the state.
In June, the five-member commission recommended that Pepco and other utilities improve their coordination with local emergency officials and do a better job of letting customers know when power might be restored. The commission also urged Pepco to be more aggressive at clearing trees near power lines.
The report followed a Pepco-commissioned review by James Lee Witt, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton.
While stopping short of saying the company could have restored power faster, Witt found a culture at the company that under-emphasized disaster response. He urged improvements in customer service and a revamping of numerous internal operating procedures.
"They have followed pretty much everything we recommended," Witt said. "I think it will make a big difference."
To limit potential outages, Pepco has been aggressively clearing tree branches, and in some cases entire trees, in areas that have had persistent outages.
The utility plans to spend $10.3 million on tree trimming this year, about $2 million more than it spent in 2002, according to spokesman Robert A. Dobkin.
Pepco, which serves 720,000 customers, has also reorganized its procedures for responding to power outages. The company's automated call center was equipped to handle 200,000 reports of outages before Isabel, and Maxwell said it is now equipped to process more than a half-million calls.
The utility has assembled strike teams to rapidly respond to locations where outages or downed lines are reported. Separate teams are designated to handle broader power restoration efforts.
Even so, Pepco officials acknowledge that there is only so much they can do to quickly restore electricity during widespread outages. But they said they are preparing to do a better job of letting customers know when their power realistically might return.
Pepco's Web site now includes a link to a map of power outages, although that isn't of much use to someone who does not have electricity. But a new computer system means the company's customer service representatives will have better information about restoration times for customers who call in, Maxwell said.
"They have really beefed up their effort for handling calls," said Scott Reilly, assistant chief administrative officer to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "It is a much more sophisticated reporting system than it was a year ago."
Reilly said Pepco has been "awfully responsive" to Montgomery officials' concerns and expects smoother coordination between them and utility officials during future outages.