Feeling powerless in wake of Irene

Our view: Utility customers need more than public assurances that power will be back on soon

August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene may not have lived up (or down) to expectations, but let's not treat the storm and its aftermath as some minor inconvenience. At least 27 people died in Irene's wake by most recent count, hundreds of thousands are still without power and property damage along the Eastern Seaboard is likely to be measured in the billions of dollars.

In Maryland, the residents of Ocean City are probably still in full gratitude mode. Never mind that the evacuation may have proved unnecessary in retrospect. It was a prudent precaution. Meteorologists had predicted the Atlantic resort was in grave danger — an observation that radar images all through Saturday demonstrated was totally justified — and that it somehow emerged Sunday no worse off than after a bad summer storm or perhaps spring Nor'easter is almost miraculous.

Ditto for many of the low-lying portions of the state, including Eastern Baltimore County and Annapolis, where flooding was expected. After a week that only Hollywood's Irwin Allen might have loved with back-to-back earthquake and hurricane (and lacking only a plague of locusts), gratitude ought to be the public's first reaction.

But not its only reaction. If the storm demonstrated anything, it's that Americans are more dependent on electricity than ever before. Losing power to one's home or business is no small thing, especially for the elderly and infirm.

For so many Marylanders (and for millions more from North Carolina to New England), Irene proved to be a kind of reverse lottery to those in her destructive path. Falling trees or branches, wind damage to electrical equipment, flooding and the like took out power in a seemingly random patchwork pattern. One block may have lost it while another did not.

Is Baltimore Gas & Electric doing everything possible to restore power? The company certainly makes a compelling case, with record numbers of workers in the field. But for the average homeowner, it's impossible to measure a utility's performance in any objective manner. If you never lost power (or had it restored promptly), you're probably a satisfied customer; if you are still without, probably not.

That's why the Maryland Public Service Commission's current effort to create reliability standards for power companies operating in the state was rightly judged necessary to ensure that customers are receiving quality service. The PSC rules due next summer would allow the agency to impose fines on utilities that failed to meet proposed performance measures.

One thing BGE has going for it is that neighboring Pepco makes it look good. The Washington area utility's failure to restore power to the satisfaction of its customers after last winter's snowstorms caused the Maryland General Assembly to take corrective action and authorize the PSC to move forward with the benchmark standards and penalties.

Granted, BGE may be doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances with crews working around the clock. Unless customers are willing to pay considerably more each month to upgrade the existing infrastructure (and make no mistake, that's where the bill ultimately falls), this may be the price people must pay for Mother Nature's occasional fury. But that's not much compensation to those of us still sitting in the dark without power to pump a backyard well, keep perishables safe in the freezer, or even boil water.

In the meantime, we would urge neighbors to look out for each other when possible and businesses not to take advantage of the circumstances by jacking up prices for batteries or bottled water. Candles and generators can be hazardous, and sometimes what families need most is a friend willing to let them use a shower or provide the children a place to do their homework.

For the vast majority, power will likely be restored by week's end, and with it, all the frustration of living off the grid will fade away. That is until the next hurricane, blizzard or other natural disaster rolls around and Marylanders will be left to wonder if their local utility has truly done everything it can — or just has gotten good at telling us it has.

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