BGE on the line in Floyd's aftermath

Fair assessment: Investigation can't be political, but should evaluate utility's preparedness.

October 06, 1999

THE GOVERNOR was right to call for an investigation into the response of Maryland's utility companies to Hurricane Floyd, but he shouldn't be looking for a scapegoat to make himself look good.

Obviously, Marylanders who struggled without power -- some for a week -- feel the utility companies were ill-prepared for a storm that didn't appear to pack as big a wallop as others in recent years.

But Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials say Floyd was more destructive than it appeared; in fact, the power company calls Floyd its most devastating storm in 40 years.

That's partly because conditions were ripe for so many trees to be uprooted. The earth dried and cracked around root balls during the long drought, then was softened by a few days of rain. Floyd followed with odd, swirling, angry winds. And with the trees still wearing their leaves this early in the fall, they were more vulnerable to being carried away.

Thousands were -- right across power lines.

A bad thunderstorm can cost BGE $1 million in repairs. Last January's ice storm cost $7 million. Floyd's price tag: $16 million.

More than a third of BGE's 1.1 million customers lost power at some point. Company officials stood by slack-jawed as reports rolled in the evening of Sept. 16: Most of Harford County, out; western Baltimore County and southern Anne Arundel, out.

BGE's response was hampered by the massive sweep of this storm. Other utilities were understandably reluctant to lend crews until they were free of the threat.

Two remedies were suggested after Floyd: burial of old, overhead power lines and clearing a wider swath of trees that might interfere with the lines. These options should be studied, but either would cost millions.

The company was caught not only by a force of nature but by economic winds of change, too. It downsized in anticipation of utility deregulation and a now-canceled merger with Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO). Perhaps it should arrange a standby force of former workers to summon in emergencies.

BGE's ability to maintain or restore service will shape consumers' decisions on purchasing electricity in the future. BGE says Floyd affected transmission of power, not its generation -- the part that would be deregulated. But customers aren't likely to care about those distinctions -- just as they'd blame the fast-food restaurant, not the beef supplier, if they ate a bad burger.

That roar BGE heard wasn't just Floyd: It was a new competitive era coming.

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