Floyd prompts utilities probe

Glendening orders regulators to assess emergency strategies

September 25, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Joining a rising chorus of Marylanders protesting Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s repair performance after Hurricane Floyd, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered state regulators yesterday to investigate whether area utilities are maintaining proper emergency response plans.

In calling on the Public Service Commission to investigate local power companies' disaster mitigation plans, the governor cited the recent hurricane and severe power outages to Potomac Electric Power Co. customers in January.

In the week after the storm Sept. 16, the commission received more than 1,000 calls complaining about power outages and slow repairs, a spokeswoman said. Glendening noted that the governor's office had also received "numerous complaints."

"I share the frustration and concerns of Maryland families who were without power for way too long," Glendening said. "I greatly appreciate the dedication and hard work of the utility workers who worked diligently to restore power. I am very concerned, however, that the public utility companies appeared both uncoordinated and unprepared for this major storm.

"I recognize that weather emergencies are acts of God and nature, but our public utilities must be prepared to take necessary precaution to prepare for these storms, and to minimize their potential damage before they occur."

The labor union attempting to organize BGE employees contends layoffs contributed to the slow repairs.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that if you have 100 people fighting storm damage vs. 200 a few years ago, it's going to take longer to restore power," said Jim Hunter, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900, which represents Potomac Electric Power Co. workers and has been attempting to organize BGE.

"There's just not enough people. It's inexcusable," Hunter added. "And their planning was shown to be pathetic."

BGE acknowledges that it has less staff to repair storm damage than in recent years, but maintains it has "cross-trained" employees to handle various storm-related assignments. Moreover, the utility contends that the 3,200 people it had working administratively and in the field represent a net increase compared with other significant storms.

"We welcome the investigation," said Stephen F. Wood, BGE's vice president of electric transmission and distribution. "I can understand the governor's response; he's probably been getting a lot of calls, as we have, and people are not used to being without power for six or seven days.

"But this was a catastrophic event, and most of the public does not see it as a catastrophic event. It had a large-scale impact. We responded the best we could."

At its peak, Hurricane Floyd, which in some areas brought 70 mile-per-hour winds and more than 10 inches of rain, cut power to 490,000 residences and businesses in the Baltimore area. The storm, which downed trees and power lines, caused more than $10 million in damage to roads and bridges. BGE has 1.1 million electric customers in the region.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency reported that 13 of the state's 23 counties reported flooding, and at least 255 roads were closed.

Earlier this week, Glendening asked the federal government to declare 11 Maryland counties major disaster areas, which would provide millions of dollars in aid.

Glendening ordered the PSC to complete its investigation and report its findings no later than Dec. 1.

In a letter to PSC Chairman Glenn F. Ivey, the governor asked the commission to determine whether area utilities have maintained adequate staffing to deal with emergencies; if they responded to consumer inquiries and complaints with timely and complete information; and whether the power suppliers were being "proactive" in inspecting utility lines, connections and other equipment.

"We'll ask BGE and the other utilities to perform a self-assessment, identify areas that need improvement and take a look at their staffing levels as they compared to levels in the past, and whether they had the same number of people in the field as in the past," said Chrys Wilson, a PSC spokeswoman. "We also plan to look at the breakdown of their crews, and their inventory of parts and equipment."

The response to Hurricane Floyd is almost certain to raise questions about how many employees BGE should maintain for emergency situations, but the utility contends it is staffed adequately.

"We certainly have the staff necessary to handle a reasonable storm, but we can't have people sitting around for a once in a 40-year or 50-year event," Wood said.

Wood said it is too early to derive lessons from Floyd or what the company would do differently.

Although the inquiry is being prompted by what Glendening called "BGE's slow response" to the storm, the recent outages mark the latest in a series. In January, Pepco customers were without power for significant periods because of a severe ice storm.

In addition to calling for an inquiry, Glendening announced he will form a task force to recommend ways to mitigate damage from future storms and review potential changes in rules and practices.

The task force will also study the feasibility and cost of burying power lines; how to better protect water plants and wastewater treatment plants from flooding and power outages, and how to evaluate backup power systems.

"This is the latest in a long series of power outages in our area, and it points to a larger issue of our utilities' shoddy service in times of crisis," said Ted Kluga, of Annapolis, whose power was out for five days after Hurricane Floyd hit Maryland.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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