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Residents suffering long outages seek answers

by Gazette StaffPrince George’s County residents are continuing to clear trees knocked down by the storm Friday, with utility companies drawing fire from those whose power outages lasted several days.

“We’re facing many challenges,” Pepco spokeswoman Myra Oppel said. “Trees have blocked us from getting to much of the damaged equipment. We still have tremendous devastation to work through.”

By 11 a.m. Tuesday, 24,437 Pepco customers and about 15,525 BGE customers in the county were still without power. The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, which serves southern Prince George’s, had about 100 outages Tuesday morning.

With power out from Indiana to Maryland, power companies were drawing on linemen and work crews from as far away as Texas to help restore downed lines. More than 600 extra workers from as far south as South Carolina and as far west as Texas were expected to arrive Monday to help with restoration efforts, Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson said.

The storm left an estimated 2 million in the region without power, and was called the largest outage since Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and the worst nonhurricane-related outage ever, Anderson said.

After losing power at about 9 p.m. Friday, Bowie resident Trina Ferguson said BGE restored her power within about 24 hours. She said the utility’s response was the best she had seen it in her 10 years as a city resident.

“You could definitely tell they were working at least in our area to get things up and running, clearing out downed power lines and trees,” Ferguson said. “...BGE seemed like they were on it this time. It’s the best they’ve done since I’ve been in Bowie.”

The response wasn’t as optimistic in Montgomery County, where 79,180 Pepco customers were still without power Tuesday morning.

“People are pissed,” said Montgomery County Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park on Monday, when he was without power at his home. “People don't understand why it is taking this long.”

“We are paying the price of Pepco’s neglect of its system over many, many years,” said Montgomery Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, who also was without power Monday. “We have a weak utility system and if you have a weak utility system that meets a bad storm, it is not going to be a good combination.”

Maryland's Public Service Commission said it is monitoring the utilities’ effort to restore power.

PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said the commission will take a hard look at the utilities’ response after power is restored.

If 10 percent of a utility’s territory or 100,000 utility customers, whichever is less, lose power in an event, the company has 21 days after power is restored to file a major storm report with the PSC, he said.

After those are received, the commission will hold a hearing where it will ask “tough and penetrating” questions of the company to understand what happened and why, he said.

The PSC is already slated to decide by July 13 whether to grant Pepco a 4 percent rate increase the utility is seeking in Maryland. That increase would add about $5.56 per month to the average residential customer’s bill.

Because the case is ongoing, Nazarian would not say what is in or out of the official record on which the commission will decide the case, specifically if this latest storm will be a consideration.

“This is the third largest restoration in our history,” said Tom Dennison, a spokesman for SMECO. “We have definitely been working around the clock, utilizing upwards of 75 crews, along with 21 contract crews from [other states].”

Baden resident Joanne Flynn said SMECO restored power to her farm by Monday morning.

“I guess the response was pretty good, given that a big tree knocked down a power line across our driveway,” said Flynn, who is also the vice president of the Greater Baden and Aquasco Citizens Association. “While it’s better to have power back quicker, I understand that there was a lot of damage...Most people I know either never lost power or have it back on now.”

Staff writers C. Benjamin Ford, Erich Wagner, Peggy McEwan, Jeremy Arias, Kate S. Alexander, Margie Hyslop and Vanessa Harrington contributed to this report.