Left in the dark Pepco feels ire of cut-off cus­tomers

Util­ity backs off es­ti­mated re­pair times

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AVIS THOMAS-LESTER

Un­der fire from res­i­dents who re­mained with­out elec­tric­ity af­ter Wed­nes­day’s snow­storm, Pepco said Satur­day that it will no longer es­ti­mate re­pair times. The move is in­tended to avoid dis­ap­point­ing cus­tomers if those time frames are not met, the com­pany said.

At the same time, Pepco of­fi­cials said that cus­tomers who lost power in the storm should have the lights back on by 11 p.m. Sun­day.

The news was par­tic­u­larly vex­ing for some res­i­dents, in­clud­ing many in the Bethesda and Po­tomac Re­gency ar­eas of Mont­gomery County, who had been told their power would be re­stored Fri­day, and then Satur­day, only to see those dead­lines missed.

Yet there was good news, too. Sev­eral peo­ple who had lost power for days and hours had ser­vice re­stored by Satur­day evening.

At var­i­ous points Satur­day, some res­i­dents who had been try­ing to ride it out be­gan mak­ing plans to leave their homes. Pepco’s change-up, some said, un­der­scored what they char­ac­ter­ized as rude and in­con­sid­er­ate be­hav­ior by the power com­pany, which had the largest num­ber of cus­tomers in the re­gion still with­out power.

“Bad in­for­ma­tion is no in­for­ma­tion,” Steven Hub­ber­man of Po­tomac said al­most 72 hours af­ter los­ing power. “It has been a very long time since we lost

power and, as if it’s not bad enough that it takes a long time to get it re­stored, they can’t even give ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion. You go to the Web site and you call, which is all you have, and what you hear is com­pletely un­re­li­able.” Hub­ber­man said his elec­tric­ity was work­ing by Satur­day night.

As of 9 p.m. Satur­day, more than 16,700 Pepco cus­tomers re­mained with­out power, most of them in Mont­gomery. Bal­ti­more Gas and Elec­tric, which once had 230,000 cus­tomers with­out elec­tric­ity, re­ported 1,300 cus­tomers still in the dark. A spokesman for Do­min­ion Vir­ginia Power said ear­lier that all power had been re­stored.

Pepco spokesman Bob Hainey said the com­pany had 1,200 em­ploy­ees and contractors restor­ing power, but that the storm it­self had slowed the process. He said its ar­rival dur­ing af­ter­noon rush hour, led to grid­lock that made it im­pos­si­ble for crews to be in po­si­tion.

“We were able to re­store 180,000 of 210,000 cus­tomers who lost power in the storm by late Fri­day,” he said. “A con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate is that power will be re­stored to all cus­tomers by 11 p.m. Sun­day.”

That had been lit­tle com­fort to Hub­ber­man, his wife, Gail, and two teenage chil­dren. Count­ing spoiled food, res­tau­rant meals and money for amuse­ment, the Hub­ber­mans es­ti­mate that the out­age cost them $2,000. He called Pepco’s sys­tem of es­ti­mat­ing re­pair times “use­less” and said the com­pany should re­im­burse cus­tomers who lose power for more than a day. “Af­ter 24 hours, you don’t have a choice. There are things you must do. Un­der 24 hours is an in­con­ve­nience. Af­ter that, you don’t have a choice.”

Af­ter the tem­per­a­ture had dropped to 45 de­grees in his Bethesda home Satur­day, David Hawkes took his fam­ily to the Mall to visit mu­se­ums, eat and stay warm. Hawkes was in­censed at the rude­ness he said he had en­coun­tered on the phone with a Pepco cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

“She said we should have been bet­ter pre­pared in an emer­gency,” he said. “ That was some mes­sage com­ing from a power com­pany that had been so poorly pre­pared to han­dle the bad weather.”

His power was also re­stored by Satur­day night.

Some cus­tomers whose power was back were still up­set. Livy More of the Colo­nial Vil­lage sec­tion of North­west Washington said that she and her hus­band, John, stayed home with a dog and cat for the two days they were with­out power, save a brief trip to a friend’s home for din­ner. Pepco, she said, should be re­quired to re­vamp the way it com­mu­ni­cates with cus­tomers.

“It was abysmal,” she said. “If we looked at the Web site, then talked to a cus­tomer ser­vice per­son, we got a dif­fer­ent story. One per­son in our neigh­bor­hood was told that the power was back on when it wasn’t. An­other was told that only one house was with­out power.”

The power com­pany “doesn’t un­der­stand pub­lic re­la­tions,” said Alan Lewis, who with wife Judy, spent one night away from home be­fore re­turn­ing to a cold, dark house. “Peo­ple are at a great in­con­ve­nience,” he said.

Pepco trucks ar­rived on the Chevy Chase neigh­bor­hood street of D.C. res­i­dent Bar­bara Bovb­jerg af­ter District and Pepco of­fi­cials ar­gued about who was re­spon­si­ble for re­mov­ing the 30foot limb that had fallen onto a power line near her home.

Pepco told her the city was re­spon­si­ble; the District told her it was Pepco’s job.

On a three-way phone call, Bovb­jerg said that cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Pepco and the District ar­gued about who should re­spond.

Bovb­jerg was un­sure how the sit­u­a­tion would re­solve it­self un­til a con­trac­tor showed up early Satur­day and re­moved the limb. About 3 p.m., the cavalry ar­rived.

“Pepco is on my street right now,” she said. “ There are many trucks and many peo­ple.”

Bovb­jerg said she does not think the con­fu­sion led to the nearly three-day out­age she ex­pe­ri­enced.

“I live on a very small street, so I un­der­stand us be­ing a lower pri­or­ity,” she said. “I just think that Pepco needs to be bet­ter pre­pared, and they need to have a bet­ter sys­tem with the peo­ple who talk to cus­tomers on the tele­phone.”

By Satur­day night, she re­ported that the lights were on again. She de­scribed her­self as “re­ally, re­ally happy.”

Hainey urged pa­tience. Pepco is in the early stages of a five-year ser­vice im­prove­ment plan, he said, and will con­tinue the ef­fort to im­prove re­li­a­bil­ity.

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