D.C. Council members planned to meet face-to-face with officials from Pepco as soon as Tuesday to address the “unacceptable” pace of the utility’s recovery efforts after Friday night’s fierce storm swept through the region and left hundreds of thousands without power in stifling heat.
Their stern response to a third day of widespread outages builds on years of skepticism aimed at the utility that serves nearly 800,000 customers in the District and Maryland.
Several city lawmakers could empathize with their constituents’ plight, because they, too, lacked power in their homes. They wondered aloud whether Pepco gave “short shrift” to the District; if its crews followed the prescribed priority list of downed wires, intersections and nursing homes; and if anyone had seen crews out and about in the immediate aftermath of the knockout punch.
“This was not an admirable approach on their part,” council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said during an afternoon briefing at the John A. Wilson Building. “And I’m furious about it, actually.”
Such complaints are not new, nor are they limited to the District. A July 2011 report found Pepco ranked dead-last in customer satisfaction among U.S. companies.
The findings by the American Customer Satisfaction Index group echoed a refrain among lawmakers in Maryland and the District. Last year, both jurisdictions revisited reliability standards at the utility and potential fines for unreasonable outages.
The fallout from Friday’s sudden storm is doing little to quell their concerns.
Joining the chorus was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who described the storm’s aftermath as “the largest nonhurricane-related power outage in Virginia history.”
Yet it was Pepco that has been dogged by vitriol from government leaders and irate residents.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told reporters this weekend that “nobody will have their boot further up Pepco’s backside than I will.”
On Monday, a frustrated customer called into a WAMU-FM(88.5)program to tell Pepco’s region president, “There’s something wrong with your company.”
Replied Thomas N. Graham: “Again we can’t control the weather, we just respond to what happens,” He also noted that the company is pumping $910 million in reliability efforts over the next five years.
Pepco’s pledge to restore power to at least 90 percent of its customers by Friday did little to qualm the angst of people who remain in the dark. City leaders were not impressed, either.
“It’s not helpful, that’s my No. 1 reaction,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said of the multiday projection. Anyone without power, he added, does “not want to hear about how it’s going to take seven days.”
Hours after Mayor Vincent C. Gray publicly decried Pepco’s response as sorely lacking, six council members sat around a conference table Monday to vent their concerns at a briefing-turned-brainstorming session with members of the mayor’s cabinet.
Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, said he asked truck drivers in his neighborhood why they were “waiting for Pepco” when they had a “Pepco” sticker on their truck, and Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, asked if the city should plant its trees more strategically.
Ultimately, they realized that many of their inquiries were misdirected.
“Last time I checked, none of you guys are Pepco,” Mr. Mendelson quipped, looking across the table at Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice; City Administrator Allen Lew; D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, and Christopher Geldart, acting director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Mr. Quander agreed that face-time with Pepco could lead to a more proactive partnership between the utility and the city.
“We’re always talking about the after-effect, but what are we going to do prevent it?” he said.
At times, city leaders weighed the harsh intensity of Friday’s “derecho” - a type of rare, straight-line windstorm that is hard to predict - against rampant dissatisfaction with restoration efforts.
Chief Ellerbe said he was not one to defend Pepco, yet noted “they were inundated.”
“This is something that doesn’t happen all the time,” he said.
Indeed, city officials said the widespread impact of the storm forced Pepco to search for support crews from several states away instead of neighboring jurisdictions, which delayed their arrival.
A proposal to bury power lines underground gained traction Monday, but lawmakers acknowledged the project is disruptive and would cost billions of dollars. Several council members said they should re-examine the costly measure, even if lines are installed bit-by-bit over the years.
“I think the benefits outweigh the difficulty, but there is that cost,” Mr. Mendelson said after pointing out that underground repairs are especially arduous.
For now, Mr. Geldart encouraged council members to relate their concerns to his agency, such as their top-three cooling centers and where to send pack of free ice.
After all, he said, “This is going to happen again.”