- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Frustration deepened yesterday for tens of thousands still without power a week after Hurricane Isabel battered the region, while utility company officials defended themselves amid increasing calls by elected officials for public hearings and investigations.

Despite the prospect of another day of outages in the metropolitan Washington area, residents in some parts of Virginia and North Carolina may not get their power restored until sometime next week.

The situation has prompted the Maryland Public Service Commission to schedule hearings once power returns on the quality of utility companies’ response to Isabel and other storms. The commission oversees utilities in the state.

The commission’s decision immediately followed a letter sent yesterday by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, asking the governor for a “vigorous and thorough investigation” into the cause of delays in restoring power.

“I have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow rate of progress being made in restoring power to many residential neighborhoods and critical areas such as schools, traffic lights and nursing homes,” Mr. Duncan wrote.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, also scheduled public hearings for Tuesday to examine Potomac Electric Power Co.’s response to Isabel.

“From everything I’ve seen, Pepco has been working hard,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But those who still don’t have power are angry, and I don’t blame them. We have a duty to see whether things could have been done differently.”

The companies’ pace in restoring power also sparked calls for increased tree trimming and plans to start burying power lines.

“Without any qualifications, Pepco could have done a better job preparing for the storm,” said D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.

“That goes for the District of Columbia government and myself included,” Mr. Fenty said. “We need to focus more on cutting and trimming trees so storms don’t knock out so many power lines.”

Last night, seven days after Isabel hit the region, power was still out for tens of thousands of Pepco customers, including 10,000 in the District, 24,000 in Montgomery County and 17,000 in Prince George’s County. Dominion Virginia Power had 22,100 customers without power, and Baltimore Gas & Electric had 2,700 in the Maryland suburbs.

Outage figures continued to drop, but even customers whose power was restored weren’t completely satisfied.

“My house is a mess and I have been bailing water for a week,” said Tammy Burns, who lives on Cunningham Drive in Berwyn Heights. “I knew it was going to be bad, but I did not think it was going to be this bad.”

Utility company officials predicted that power would be restored to all customers in the Washington metropolitan area by tomorrow. They defended their response time.

“We’ve heard a lot of supporting remarks, and we’ve heard the critical ones, too,” Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said. “We expect it. Once we get this work finished, we’ll be happy to send our reports to any of the local public officials and we think our work will stand up to their scrutiny.”

Mr. Dobkin said Pepco welcomes meetings with elected officials to discuss storm response. He said those talks should center on how to lessen the impact of felled trees on the region’s power delivery system.

“It’s a tremendous issue,” he said. “We can’t move entire trees. We love them as much as anybody else does. But a lot of places allow trees to grow up right through the power lines. When an 80-foot oak comes down, it’s going to take everybody out.”

A record 1.3 million customers lost power in Maryland as a result of Isabel, said Quentin R. Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. By last night, that number had dropped to 131,000.

Dominion officials said it was too early to tell how long their customers would be without power. “Our crews are working as hard as they can. We’ve never had a storm where so much of our system suffered a catastrophe,” said Dominion spokesman Neil Durbin.

Company officials said more crews arrived yesterday from Pennsylvania and Michigan, increasing the repair work force to 11,160.

By tomorrow, Mr. Durbin said, Dominion will have restored electricity to 1.3 million of the 1.8 million customers in North Carolina and Virginia. “In some cases, we’re having to rebuild the system from the ground up, though” he said, warning of more delays. “There are more [utility] poles down than standing.”

Dominion officials said Isabel snapped more than 9,000 poles, well above the company’s initial estimate of 2,300.

That is why some officials also are calling for utility companies to reroute power lines underground to avoid outages caused by felled trees.

“A number of residents have told me that no matter what it costs, they want to see lines buried underground,” Mr. Fenty said.

Mr. Dobkin said not all customers will agree. “It’s extremely expensive,” he said. “It’s not simply a matter of money. Everybody’s yard will have to be excavated, too. But we’re willing to sit down and discuss these issues with public officials.”

Blaine Keener, chief engineer for the Maryland Public Service Commission, said lines are expensive to bury, difficult to maintain and subject to problems of their own, such as corrosion and accidents from digging equipment. “The most cost-effective, reliable solution is to have overhead lines with no trees. But we know that’s not practical,” he said.

In Florida, officials in Miami-Dade County said most power lines there run underground or on top of concrete poles away from trees. The Miami-Dade region was devastated in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, which caused more than 1.4 million outages in that area.

“Hurricane Andrew was a wake-up call,” said Bill Johnson, assistant director of the Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management. “We have a better infrastructure now, so we don’t usually get the major power grids going down.”

Mr. Johnson said Andrew also prompted county officials to start an aggressive program to cut and trim trees near power lines. Since then, “we’ve had several Category 1 hurricanes and usually we’ll see the power restored in about 48 hours.”

Officials in Charleston, S.C., said a push to install underground power lines years after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 never materialized. More than 1 million residents in the Carolinas were without electricity for two months. “Unfortunately, people forget several years out,” said Howard Chapman, the city’s emergency preparedness coordinator.

Mr. Howard said utility officials initially said that it would take six weeks to restore power to Charleston’s central business district, which included several hospitals. “Needless to say, that was not very well received,” he said. “One of the things we did then was take a look at how we could circumvent the power company, and then it was a matter of seven days until they got power to the hospitals and business district.”

Hugo resulted in more than $8 billion in damage. Andrew, which caused more than $26 billion in damage, was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

Michael Cline, coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, estimated that Isabel’s damage to Virginia would cost at least $625 million.

Mr. Cline said $450 million would be needed to cover private losses and another $174 million to fix public buildings, roads and dams. Mr. Cline warned that the figure was likely to increase within the coming weeks.

In Maryland, the damage left behind by Isabel and the thunderstorms that hit the region Monday night and early Tuesday lingered. Maryland Rail Commuter train service to Frederick is shut down again today because of a giant sinkhole near Interstate 70.

The Metropolitan Police Department, however, reopened its harbor patrol branch in a temporary trailer at 55 Water St. SE. The D.C. Sewer and Water Authority’s Portland and Maine streets pumping stations in Southwest continued to operate with emergency generators.

D.C. officials said traffic signals at 71 intersections remained blank last night.

Still, much of the region slowly returned to normalcy yesterday. Most schools in the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs are opening on time today. Many roads have been cleared of debris and floodwaters have subsided.

In Norfolk, more than 40 U.S. Navy ships — sent hundreds of miles out to sea last week to avoid a battering from Isabel — returned to shore by Sunday. Power outages affecting Norfolk Naval Station had become minimal by yesterday afternoon.

Lt. Cmdr. Ron L. Hill, a spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic region, said about 40 people living in Navy-owned housing areas in the Hampton Roads area were still without power and “many sailors and their families living out in the surrounding civilian communities are still without power.”

He said electrical generators kicked in during the hurricane so that none of the Navy’s critical systems lost power completely. “We could still operate our mission,” he said.

Arlo Wagner, Judith Person and Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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