- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The number of power outages dropped sharply yesterday, but political momentum turned against utility companies eight days after Hurricane Isabel knocked out electricity to more than 1 million customers in the metropolitan area.

Thousands of people remained without power last night. About 11,130 customers in Northern Virginia, 9,000 in Montgomery County, 4,000 in Prince George’s County and 3,000 in the District had no electricity.

The situation prompted Maryland utility regulators yesterday to order power companies to submit written reports in three weeks detailing how they responded to Isabel, which hit the region as a tropical storm.

Meanwhile, elected officials in Virginia yesterday joined officials in the District and Maryland in calling for explanations from utilities about how they prepared for and responded to the storm.

“Restoring power is a dangerous job, but it isn’t a dangerous job to get information out to people,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope Gross, Mason District Democrat. “A lot of the problems we had were just plain communication issues with the utilities that could probably be solved pretty easily.”

Mrs. Gross yesterday called for a “power summit” between elected officials and Dominion Virginia Power representatives once electricity is restored. She joined a growing number of political figures in the region targeting power companies in Isabel’s aftermath.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, held a news conference yesterday to mark the opening of a temporary center at 8757 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring for storm victims who need federal assistance.

Mr. Duncan also used the opportunity to criticize the Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) for the third straight day. He requested a “full-blown investigation” in a letter to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Wednesday.

“We’re still very frustrated,” Mr. Duncan said yesterday. “We still have 25 road segments blocked out by trees. We thought we had that worked out with Pepco. That’s why I’m upset.”

Michael Herman, chief of staff for Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, stopped short of calling for an investigation, but said county officials would request meetings with the power companies.

“The county executive is certainly going to sit down with the top leadership of the utilities,” Mr. Herman said.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, said yesterday that while Pepco crews are working hard, he believes city government should investigate whether Pepco should invest more in infrastructure.

Pepco officials said they have not cut funds for maintenance. Utility spokesman Robert Dobkin said the utility spent about $34 million to repair its lines last year, compared with $31 million in 1997.

Mr. Dobkin said Pepco hopes to restore power to all of the 16,000 customers in the region still without electricity.

“The system was in tatters; the damage this storm created was unprecedented,” he said, responding to criticism from elected officials. “Those guys have their job to do and we have ours.”

Maryland regulators yesterday set an Oct. 20 deadline for utility companies to submit an explanation of their storm response to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The commission, which regulates utilities in Maryland, told the power companies to explain how they prioritize which areas get power first after a large outage. The commission also requested a list of improvements made by power companies after widespread outages during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Despite the criticism, not all elected officials were calling for investigations into the power companies’ response.

“I haven’t gotten many complaints here,” said Herndon Town Manager Steve Owen. “We’re a pretty small community and the crews were able to get to us pretty quickly. In fact, we’re drafting a thank-you letter.”

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