Montgomery County isn’t in hurricane alley or atop major earthquake fault lines.
Summer’s most unpleasant calling cards tend to be thunderstorms.
And the line of deadly weather that walloped the county before midnight Friday left the entire region reeling. Cleanup, repairs and vital power restoration will continue for many more days. Damage estimates are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. One storm-related death was reported in the county.
Chain saws, generators, rakes, bottled water and ice remain hot commodities. Storage tanks at some gas stations ran dry over the weekend. Hundreds of traffic signals were dark for Monday’s rush hours. Food spoiled in warm refrigerators.
With record-setting temperatures and oppressive humidity, those who are spending days without electricity — and air conditioning — are understandably on edge.
Yet nearly everyone is coping. Neighbors pulled together to help others with storm damage or shelter. Cooling centers were opened. Weekend water-use restrictions were lifted after a day when power was restored to the regional water utility’s treatment plants. Montgomery’s 911 emergency call center stayed online, unlike one in Northern Virginia. Emergency and public-works crews remain at their best.
Most notably, executives of the county’s largest power company, Pepco, stepped up their outreach and communications efforts. The company’s chief executive, Joseph Rigby, and top local leader Thomas Graham, were accessible to provide updates and manage the utility’s response over the weekend.
What they’ve had to say to the powerless wasn’t easy: Full restoration of power could take a week and more crews, from as far away as Oklahoma and Canada, were arriving Monday. (Workers from neighboring utilities BGE, Dominion, Potomac Edison and Southern Maryland’s cooperative were tied up with problems of their own.)
At least one politician said the Pepco response time was unacceptable. Given the scope of damage, defining acceptable is elusive.
Pepco has been heavily criticized in recent years, rightly so in a few cases, and received low marks in a customer-satisfaction survey in addition to a rebuke from a Montgomery County commission studying its performance. In its expansive report, the commission called the utility “complacent in the face of critical input” about its performance following major storms, including Hurricane Isabel in 2003 when three-quarters of its customers were without power, some for days.
In the wake of the ongoing performance discussion, state regulators are writing reliability standards. The County Council toyed with the idea of a takeover. And the council is considering rules that could make it harder for the utility to trim trees, which tend to topple onto power lines in big storms.
Pepco’s response to the rare derecho storm of 2012 no doubt will be scrutinized and compared with neighboring utilities’ in the weeks ahead. But as last year’s county commission report noted, “it is very difficult to compare the performance of two particular utilities because of disparities in such factors as population density, weather severity, rate structures, and local vegetation characteristics.”
Before some on the County Council and other critics start erecting another grandstand from which to attempt to launch another round of outrage at Pepco over its responsiveness, let’s get the facts and understand the variables. Pepco’s positive response will go a long way in restoring confidence. For now, heated rhetoric isn’t helpful.