- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

Utility companies under scrutiny for slow power restoration after Hurricane Isabel said yesterday they were prepared for Thursday’s windstorms that left tens of thousands of customers without power.

Officials with Potomac Electric Power Co. said repair crews worked through yesterday morning to restore electricity to nearly 60,000 customers who lost power after winds up to 70 mph hit the area early Thursday. As of yesterday, 4,300 customers still were without power, with 1,200 of those in the District.

“It’s hard to prevent [mass outages] because of the wind,” Pepco spokeswoman Denise Gavilan said. “But we stay prepared with regular trimming of trees near power wires, having control centers on call. We call in crews from out of state when necessary.”

Miss Gavilan said customers’ reaction was nothing like the outrage brought on by the previous storms, including Hurricane Isabel, which struck the Washington area two months ago.

“There have been no specific complaints from anyone, just customers calling to alert us to outages and downed wires,” Miss Gavilan said. “For the most part, [customers] have been very understanding.”

Pepco officials said felled trees and branches blown onto power lines caused most of the latest outages, and a fire at a substation knocked power out to 6,000 customers in the District.

Also yesterday, Pepco officials acknowledged blame for a fire at a Silver Spring home that started when a gas line was ignited by sparks from downed power lines. A call to Pepco’s Control Center was made at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, but a crew was not sent to the home in the 9100 block of Fairview Road until after 8 p.m.

Pepco officials said the dispatcher has been removed from duty while an investigation is pending.

Meanwhile, officials at Virginia Dominion Power, which had 47,000 reported outages Thursday, said outages were down to 3,000 yesterday, with 2,000 in Northern Virginia.

Officials with Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) said repair crews had restored 130,000 of the 170,000 reported outages since Thursday. They said more than 550 company workers and some 250 workers from six states who arrived to help yesterday morning made significant progress.

A spokeswoman for BGE said that while the majority of reported outages had been repaired, the continued high winds were slowing restoration efforts by knocking out lines that had been repaired.

“Some customers will be restored but then go back out,” the spokeswoman said. “This has been a very difficult storm.”

Like Pepco, BGE officials said their focus is not on preventing outages, but thoroughly preparing for them. Each year, BGE spends about $15 million on tree-trimming efforts. This year BGE spent $19 million on tree trimming, the spokeswoman said.

“We hold drills to practice our response to [emergencies],” she said. “Additionally, we spent $300 million on system reliability improvements.”

Initial field assessments showed that the winds caused significant damage throughout BGE’s Central Maryland system.

BGE crews at first light yesterday found “considerable damage,” said Ken DeFontes, vice president of BGE electric transmission and distribution. “As expected, the situation has been made worse by fallen trees that were weakened during Hurricane Isabel in September.”

After Isabel, utility companies came under fire from the Maryland Public Service Commission for the time it took to restore power. Some customers were without power for at least a week after the storm.

After Isabel, BGE reported 793,000 outages and Pepco had 545,000, including 374,000 in the District. Virginia Dominion reported 1.8 million outages.

Thursday’s strong winds delayed trains and caused a number of traffic accidents, including a tractor-trailer that overturned on the Severn River Bridge on Route 50 in Anne Arundel County.

Earlier in the day, the winds caused a tree to fall on a 14-year-old girl in Loudoun County as she waited in her driveway for a school bus. The Dominion High School student was in fair condition yesterday at Children’s Hospital in the District, said a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.

About four hours after she was hurt, a man working at River Creek Golf Course in Leesburg, Va., was hit in the head by a tree limb that came down. He is recovering at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

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