Utility customers fume days after Floyd

Thousands complain of delays in restoring power and cable

September 21, 1999|By Michael Hill and Amy Oakes | Michael Hill and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Nearly 41,000 customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. were beginning their fifth day without power this morning as the utility scrambled to deal with what it described as unprecedented damage from last week's visit of Hurricane Floyd.

"With the ice storm in January, we were talking about branches down on wires," said Brenda Pettigrew, a BGE spokeswoman. "This time we are talking about entire trees. There are stubborn jobs in every area of our service territory."

In Baltimore, about 1,000 households had power but were still lacking another seeming necessity of modern life -- cable television.

It was one thing to miss the Ravens' home opener Sunday or the new fall shows that were beginning this week, but for at least one customer of TCI Communications, the city's cable provider, falling behind in soap operas was the toughest to take.

"I've been watching those shows for a long, long time," Ophelia Mattison, 86, of Northwood, said of "The Guiding Light" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Her daughter was just as upset. Not because she missed the soaps, but because she couldn't get anyone to answer the phone at TCI, which has 110,000 customers in Baltimore.

"I've been calling and calling, and all I get is a machine," said Deborah Garner, 45.

BGE customers were expressing similar frustrations. Bill Harne of Ellicott City said the loss of hundreds of dollars in spoiled food, living by lantern light and brewing coffee on his gas grill are not nearly as frustrating as trying to get service, or answers, from BGE.

Even after getting past the recorded message, Harne said, "the people who answer the phone can't tell you any information at all."

Effort to improve

"We understand it is frustrating to them," said Pettigrew. She said the utility had taken more than 200,000 calls since the storm hit on Thursday.

"It's no wonder that in the early hours of the storm people had trouble getting through. But we have taken remedies," she said. "So, for the most part, people are able to get through now."

BGE stopped taking any business calls yesterday, assigning all operators to handle emergency calls, Pettigrew said.

"We've had few busy signals today, so we think we're doing a pretty good job in that area," she said.

TCI took similar steps, bringing in 10 more people over the weekend to field calls, but still found the phone lines jammed.

"We're coming out of the woods, but we're still asking people to be patient," said TCI business operations manager Michael Hewitt.

At the height of the storm, about 14,000 TCI customers with power had no cable service. Yesterday, that number hovered between 750 and 1,000. Hewitt said most should have their service restored by today. Customers who lost service will be refunded the cost of the days their cable was down.

Rules of engagement

TCI was hampered by the rules of storm engagement, which put cable company crews at the end of the repair line -- BGE goes first, followed by telephone repair crews from Bell Atlantic.

Managers of the city's cable television office, which monitors TCI's performance, said the company was doing its best to restore service. Cedric Crump, the city's cable program compliance officer, said TCI lost service to almost 60 percent of its customers because of power outages Thursday.

"There's nothing they could have done to prevent it," Crump said. "They deployed their people. But BGE is the first utility to go in the area because their equipment is life-threatening. They have to secure the situation, and then Bell Atlantic goes in, and when they get out, the cable guys go in."

In Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties, 200 households that have power still do not have cable service, said Doug Sansom, vice president and general manager of Comcast Metropolitan Systems, which has more than 320,000 cable customers in those counties.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but, literally, there are tens of thousands out there who don't have power and, therefore, don't have video," said Sansom. "We can provide video service today to most of all our customers, but if they don't have power, they can't watch anyway. When BGE brings up their network, ours will automatically power itself up.

"This was a pretty bad storm," he said. "It did a lot of damage to trees and lines."

About 200 trucks have been out since the storm performing more than 1,000 jobs a day to restore and maintain service, he said.

In Anne Arundel County, about 350 cable subscribers of the county's two providers -- Jones Communications and Millennium Digital Media -- remained without service yesterday. Both companies were using generators to provide service in areas where the cable system's power was down.

In Carroll County, Prestige Cable TV reported as many as a quarter of its 28,700 homes lost service during the storm, most for brief periods on Thursday. Only about 175 didn't get it back until Friday.

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