Power outages put focus on storm response, lessons for future

Practicality of burying power lines a source of debate

  • Vanessa Burnham, right, a residents of the 700 block of Hollen Road reacts after hearing from BGE crewman Jesse Palmisano, left, that her home's electrical power might be restored today. The neighborhood has been without electrical power for almost a week since last Friday's storm.
Vanessa Burnham, right, a residents of the 700 block of Hollen… (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore…)
July 07, 2012|By Scott Calvert, Erica L. Green and Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun

Jack and Betty Scrivener of Stoneleigh lost power last August thanks to Hurricane Irene. They lost it again when storms pummeled the region June 30 — and after one very long, very hot week, the elderly couple still hadn't gotten it back. They don't know if they can take another extended outage.

"It'll probably drive us into a retirement home, because I'm 85," Jack Scrivener said Friday afternoon as a generator provided just enough juice for three outlets at their Ridgeleigh Road home. "It is so hard on people in our age group."

Not that it's been easy on anybody, coming amid a scorching heat wave that authorities have blamed for 10 deaths in Maryland. Three other deaths were related to the storm itself.

As utility crews worked to restore power to the Scriveners and thousands of others still stuck in the dark, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s critics faulted the utility's response and called for changes that included improving communication with customers and putting power lines underground.

BGE counters that burying wires would be wildly expensive, with a price tag in the billions. The utility says it has responded as well as it could to the recent storm, which resembled a hurricane without much warning. And the company says it has implemented lessons from Irene, including not over-promising how quickly it could turn the lights back on.

By Saturday night, about 6,000 customers remained without power, down from a high more than 700,000.

"I've never seen an event like we just had," said A. Christopher Burton, a BGE vice president. "I've got 26 years in the industry. This is new on me."

But if the particulars of the latest storm made it unusual, some observers speculate that global climate change could cause an increase in such potent storms, forcing utilities to find new ways to adapt.

"The new normal may be you're going to have a storm once, twice, three times a year where a significant amount of people are losing power for two or three days," said Barry Scanlon, president of Witt Associates, a disaster management consulting firm in Washington. "And that's if the utility is doing a really good job."

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe says utilities like BGE and Pepco need to rethink their outlook.

"It's no longer an excuse for the utilities to say that we are shocked, shocked, shocked that the wind blew hard, or that it rained a lot or that it snowed for three days," he said. "It's unpredictable what weather event will take place on what day, but it is more predictable that we will continue to have them."

Rosapepe, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, advocates burying power lines so that falling trees won't cause widespread outages.

He also backs forming a National Guard-like unit of reserve utility workers to mobilize after big storms, lessening reliance on out-of-state crews. (About 1,900 linemen from Canada to Texas have assisted more than 2,500 BGE workers in the last week's repairs.) He envisions tapping underemployed workers or retirees — "people who don't work for them every day but have the skills to get on the case immediately."

The current situation is unacceptable, he says. "When it happens in the middle of a heat wave, this thing is killing people," he said. "It's horrendous, and it's absolutely unnecessary."

Another criticism leveled at BGE has been the company's communication with the public.

"There is no excuse for the lack of information being given to customers," said AARP Maryland senior state director Hank Greenberg. "That should be organized far before the next storm."

He added: "It's very frustrating to be left being told it will be back in a week, and then change it to nine days."

Greenberg pointed to other ideas that would help with future storms. Those include designating community liaisons to communicate with residents in specific areas and identifying vulnerable populations ahead of time so they receive top priority with assistance.

BGE says it is premature for it to comment in detail on what it has learned from the recent storm. The utility will likely have until the end of the month to file an official storm report to state regulators at the Public Service Commission.

After Irene, which left 756,000 without power, 95 percent of customers were restored within five days, but some were dark for eight days. On average, affected customers lost power for 37 hours.

The PSC has since approved new reliability standards, which specify how quickly utilities must restore service under varying conditions and govern utilities' customer service, tree-trimming and other maintenance efforts. But for storms like the recent one that cut power to more than half of their customers, utilities are simply required to resolve outages as soon as possible.

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