- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Hurricane Isabel was such a powerful and rare storm that it is too early to accurately rate utilities’ efforts in restoring electricity to customers, utility analysts and watchdog groups said.

While customers and many public officials have criticized Pepco Holdings Inc., Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and Dominion Virginia Electric Power for being unprepared and slow in responding to the storm, other groups have been more supportive or are withholding comment until they collect more information.

Hurricane Isabel last week knocked out power to nearly 3 million Pepco, BGE and Dominion customers Sept. 18, and a rainstorm Monday night and early Tuesday morning slowed restoration efforts. Nearly 100,000 people in the area remained without electricity as of yesterday.

Public service commissions in Maryland and the District have asked utilities to submit a report by Oct. 20 outlining their repair activities, including how they prioritized the work.

“We’re refraining from making comment until we read the reports,” said Chrys Wilson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Service Commission. “It’s difficult. We don’t want to prejudge.”

Public service commissions are state agencies that regulate the utilities.

Loss of power caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, as well as a major ice storm and heat wave that year, triggered the local public service commissions to request that companies submit reports on activities three weeks after any major outage.

Some groups have been reluctant to criticize the utilities partly because there is no true point of comparison; Isabel created more power outages in the Washington area than any other storm in history. Hurricane Floyd was of comparable force but felled fewer trees because the ground had not been as saturated with rain, analysts said.

“I think it would be difficult to compare,” said Richard Beverly, the general counsel to the D.C. Public Service Commission. “The question is certainly being asked.”

Some customers and officials say utilities have cut the amount of money spent on line maintenance and tree trimming. Equity analysts said determining spending in those areas is difficult, but that there is no obvious indication that utilities made major cuts.

Andrew Smith, a utilities analyst with Lazard Freres & Co. in New York, said that while utilities try to control costs, most are sensitive to how customers will react to spending cuts.

“Typically, maintenance is not something the utility would want to put at risk, because it creates customer complaints,” Mr. Smith said. He also said Isabel was such a strong storm that “even the best tree trimming” would not prevent the outages experienced in the Washington area.

“I think it’s very unfair to take something like a hurricane and say this is indicative of how a utility operates on a regular basis,” he said.

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