9 Jul 2012

Outage outrage — lessons from derecho storm: heed the worst case outcome

Written by Jim Pierobon

For the more than 5 million customers who saw their power wiped out by the so-called “derecho” storm that swept across six states in the upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic U.S. June 29, there was little if anything energy and telecommunications companies did to minimize the damage, the 22-person death toll and political fallout.

Like it or not, that’s the takeaway that seems unavoidable from weather reports, media assessments, press releases and statements by public officials now that all of those customers have had their services restored from the derecho’s 80+ mph winds, rain and hail amid the sweltering 100+ degree temperatures.

The right “derecho” storm cluster was the cause of massive power outages from Ohio to Virginia and New Jersey Friday, June 29. CREDIT: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

Ninety minutes before the storm hit the Washington area (see satellite image, right), the National Weather Service forecast severe thunderstorms with “significant wind damage.”  Even so, the Weather Service’s Katie Garrett told CBS News  even the experts were impressed by how fast the derecho moved.

So it appeared all the major players — utilities included — did not acknowledge the storm’s potential threat as it gained momentum from the sweltering heat.

Here’s one take by The Washington Post July 3.

Montgomery County, MD residents subscribing to a text- and email-based emergency alert system did not receive any such alert — if any alert was even issued. Montgomery County officials did not respond to an email inquiring about this.

Derechos are common in the Midwest, but once every four summers, one derecho statistically makes it to the Midwest powered by Gulf Stream winds.

“What happens is you have a wall of wind really coming in ahead of the thunder through the lightning and the heavy rain,” the Weather Service’s Garrett said.

Kevin Gould of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took this photo as the derecho  approached central Maryland. CREDIT: Kevin Gould

Ken Barker, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power Company, explained to the media “This was, in our 100 year history, the largest non-hurricane storm we’ve had.” With a slow moving hurricane, Barker said, there are days to prepare. But with a derecho, by the time you know it’s coming, it’s too late to do much more than take cover.

“In my 24 years with BGE,” said Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) Customer Operations Vice President Jeannette M. Mills — and this has been confirmed by my colleagues with sometimes decades more service — no storm has ever combined this magnitude of damage with its suddenness.” See her entire July 8  letter to customers here.

No doubt some of these types of statements are designed at least in part to provide political cover. Utilities such as Pepco, which serves Washington, DC and two adjacent Maryland counties, has been the butt of jokes and harsh critiques by local and state officials for years over alleged neglect of its electric infrastructure.

Pepco has applied for a rate increase and will need to sharpen its defenses at a July 19 public hearing in before officials in Montgomery County, MD.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who by his numerous trips out of state has signaled national political ambitions, used the storm to hammer Pepco over its pace of restoration efforts. While that might have comforted some without power to know the state’s top public official was ‘on the case.’

“Nobody will have their boot further up Pepco’s backside than I will to make sure we get there.” O’Malley said after Pepco indicated it might be a week before power is restored to all customers.

After searching far and wide, it wasn’t clear what, if anything, O’Malley’s administration did that materially facilitated restoration efforts.

O’Malley’s tactics did not go unnoticed. Gregg Easterbrook, a Pepco customer and Maryland resident who writes for The Atlantic, had this to say:

“O’Malley might have proved himself with White House-level competence by dealing with Pepco. Instead, he has done nothing, while gallivanting around the nation promoting himself. Sunday, with a power crisis at home, the governor was more interested in engaging in self-promotion on Face the Nation. O’Malley’s abysmal performance in his own state makes his claim to national leadership seem a practical joke.” Read his entire post on the “politics of electricity” here.

The editorial board at The Washington Post is no fan of Pepco either. It accuses Pepco of clouding its performance with a “fog of statistics” and “inexcusably spotty communications.” Read its July 8 editorial here.

What each of these and other utilities did seem to do well given the gravity of this storm:

1. get the facts out — fast;

2. have an articulate, knowledgeable senior official available to the media 24/7;

3. manage expectations; and

4. coordinate with emergency response personnel.

Pepco embedded communications personnel into state and local emergency management agencies (EMA) and emergency operations center to facilitate communications and collaborate on setting priorities for restoring critical public health and safety facilities.

Pepco spokeswoman Courtney Nogas told TheEnergyFix that it activated an “emergency incident response plan early on Friday, June 29.” She did not say how early. That meant holding over line crews, securing local contractors, activating its response personnel and reviewing material inventories.

“Although no amount of preparation can prevent catastrophic damage from windstorms such as the one that struck us last Friday, effective collaboration between utilities and the EMA is critical for being able to respond as effectively as possible,” said Chris Geldart, District of Columbia Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

Pepco might have been worked at cross purposes, at least in Montgomery County, MD where I reside. After promising to contact customers as soon as there service was restored at the phone number of their choice, I did not receive said notification until more than two days after the fact.

1 Comment to Outage outrage — lessons from derecho storm: heed the worst case outcome

  1. Kal's GravatarKal
    July 9, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I would take a much harsher view of Pepco’s efforts, and I was one of the luck who did NOT lose power.

    First, I simply don’t believe the comment the spokeswoman made about holding crews over and securing local contractors. By all accounts, no one predicted how dangerous this storm would be until a few hours before it hit. If Pepco jumped into action “early” on Friday, it must have one helluva weather service — and one that doesn’t share information — because no one else saw it coming.

    (The Post link you provide states exactly that.)

    Pepco also said on 7/1 that it had requested 1,000 crews through mutual assistance, but received only 175 responses. Dominion seemed to rally more crews faster through mutual assistance, which makes me wonder exactly how early in the crisis Pepco actually made its request.

    Second, I think Pepco fell down in its public outreach, especially CEO Thomas Graham. Making comments like, “You can’t say this is a Pepco issue,” which is a direct quote from his 7/1 news conference, is a great example of failing to sympathize with customers and own the problem.

    In that same news conference, Graham acknowledged — and apparently it was a surprise to his PR people — that Pepco’s consumer website was down. Good move: Drive people to a website that isn’t operational. Even better: Tell people who don’t have power or Internet to check the website. Best: Scratch your head in confusion when informed that the website isn’t working. (How often are you really updating it, if you didn’t even notice it wasn’t functional?)

    In addition to the notice you mentioned, IT also failed the company when robocalls started informing customers — some in the middle of the night — that power had been restored, when, in fact, it wasn’t.

    On 7/3, Graham stalked away from a newsroom interview with WUSA following up on some comments he had made on the air a few minutes before. Not good. (http://www.wusa9.com/news/article/211456/373/VIDEO-Pepcos-Tom-Graham-Abruptly-Ends-Interview)

    Having said all that, I think Pepco was somewhat unfairly maligned because of past performance. No one likes an outage, but less than 24 hours after the storm hit, people were taking to social networks to blast the company for not restoring power. Local media played this up, fanning the discontent.

    Empty criticism from Gov. O’Malley and the utterly ineffectual Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett also fed the “pile on Pepco” trend. O’Malley and Leggett blatantly tried to turn the public’s growing frustration away from their own uselessness by slamming Pepco.

    If I were in Graham’s shoes, I’d call O’Malley and Leggett on their comments right now — and certainly on 7/19 — to demand that Maryland and Montgomery County ante up the billions it would take to bury transmission and distribution lines. When the power goes out, blame them for failing to act in the public interest, if they don’t support the effort.

    And, the next time some community activist tries to block Pepco from trimming trees or other vegetation management services, demand that O’Malley and Leggett stand up at the public meetings and say it MUST be done.

    At the same time, make the investment — at least in the short term — in more personnel, and make a huge PR campaign around the effort. Take out want ads, go to job fairs, and drive Pepco-branded trucks around neighborhoods until people start complaining about seeing the logo too much.

    Turn Pepco employees into ambassadors, too. With thousands of employees living in the region, the company ought to have on-the-ground points of contact in every neighborhood. Using these employee-neighbor ambassadors will also add a human face and increase credibility.

    Pepco has a lot of tools it can apply to re-build goodwill — and it needs to use them.

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