As massive power outages frustrate hurricane relief efforts along the Gulf Coast, Montgomery County officials are demanding assurances that local electricity provider Pepco is prepared for a major storm.
The utility, which provides power to more than 700,000 customers in Maryland and the District, came under criticism this summer after comparatively minor storms knocked out service to thousands of residents, some for as long as three days.
"In light of the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina this week, we are further reminded that this season's hurricane season is shaping up as one of the worst in recent history," County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said yesterday in a letter to Pepco officials. "[We want] to ensure that everything possible is being done to prepare for emergencies."
The letter, co-signed by County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), asked Pepco to provide data on this summer's outages, including the number of power lines and transformers damaged by storms, the number of repair crews brought from outside the company and the accuracy of restoration times provided to customers.
County officials also asked the utility to rate the effectiveness of measures put in place two years ago after Hurricane Isabel. The September 2003 storm, the region's worst in 50 years, cut power to 75 percent of Pepco's customers. Some neighborhoods languished without service for more than a week, and the utility came under widespread criticism for the pace of repairs and failure to provide prompt, reliable estimates of when the lights would come back on.
The utility took a number of steps in response, including upgrades to its computerized system that takes calls from customers and analyzes the information.
But complaints soared again after a string of July thunderstorms cut power to more than 120,000 customers.
The District's Office of the People's Counsel, which represents energy consumers, said last month that downed trees on power lines continue to plague Pepco and that customers remained frustrated with the utility's call-in system.
"The rains of July 2005 demonstrated we are a long way from best methods," People's Counsel Elizabeth A. Noel said in the statement.
Pepco officials said yesterday that they are ready but that no amount of preparation can prevent the kind of sustained damage caused by a storm of Katrina's power.
"These types of storms produce extensive damages to electrical systems. There's no way to really avoid that no matter what kind of system you have," said Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin.
Utility officials also say it's not financially feasible to employ full time the number of electrical workers needed to respond to a major storm. Instead, utilities belong to mutual-aid pacts, lending one another crews during emergencies. Pepco's parent company, Pepco Holdings Inc., has sent about 175 contractors and employees to help restore power in Mississippi, Dobkin said.