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News Flash: Potomac Loses Power

Potomac loses power again, trees blamed by many.

When Walt Whitman High School alum Alan Freeman moved to Potomac in September, he thought his biggest concern would be that his children would be attending rival Churchill.

Then he lost power six times in two and a half months.

Last Thursday’s windstorms created a familiar refrain among Potomac residents who want to know why they now seem to lose power even at the forecast of bad weather. “My side of the street always loses power,” Freeman said. “And good luck even getting Pepco on the phone.”

Like many residents, Freeman was concerned about the welfare of his family, especially as the weather starts to get colder. “You can’t put an 8-month-old to sleep when its 65 degrees and dropping,” Freeman said.

Many customers were without power for more than 24 hours.

At its peak, approximately 36,500 of Pepco’s 286,000 customers in Montgomery County lost power as a result of the winds Nov. 13. Pepco had restored power to all customers by Saturday, Nov. 15 said Spokesperson Bob Dobkin.

Another Potomac resident, Arlene Bergman, lives in an area with underground power lines, but even she has lost power several times over the past few months. “It’s so archaic, the way these lines run,” Bergman said.

Juan del Castillo, a Glen Road, resident took photos of numerous trees entangled in power lines after living without power for days after Hurricane Isabel. His home was without power again last week, although only for an hour. “And it took more than that to get a human on the phone.” Pepco needs to do more to trim trees around power lines, del Castillo said.

Pepco completed a self-audit of its performance during Hurricane Isabel, and found several issues to correct.

“We’re looking at how we can better improve the technology and provide customers with more information,” Dobkin said.

Pepco has also hired James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to conduct an independent review of its response to Hurricane Isabel.

Witt’s report is due in December and will be provided to the State Public Service Commission.

The commission has also initiated an investigation, but substantive relief may be a long time off. When it initiated a similar investigation after the ice storm in 1999, it took a year for the commission to issue its report.

The commission has the power to order Pepco to change their business practices.

Additionally a regional power summit has been called in January to discuss issues relevant to power companies throughout the Washington region.

Towering trees are part of Potomac’s ambiance, but also part of the problem. “The trees are a big part of the problem,” Bergman said.

“Trees are causing a lot of our outages,” Dobkin said.

Trees straddle and hang over power lines in many parts of the county. However, the responsibility for trimming them can be murky. A branch hanging over a power line might be from a tree in a Pepco or county right-of-way, or on private property.

“It’s everybody’s fault,” Freeman said.

According to state law, Pepco is allowed to trim only 25 percent of the crown of a tree in a right-of-way, said Dobkin.

“I think what we’re going to have to go to the state and ask for permission [to cut more],” he said.

If a tree is on private property, Dobkin says Pepco would need the property owner’s permission to trim the tree. “We’d only trim one side, and a lot of people don’t want that,” he said.

Dobkin did not know if a crew on-the-scene is authorized to ask for that permission, or if it would need to come from a different level in Pepco.

Freeman and others are still frustrated and their dissatisfaction is growing.

“I’m still toying with the idea of a class action suit if this ever comes up again,” del Castillo said.

Freeman points out that when he was growing up in Bethesda, power was more reliable. “The weather hasn’t changed,” Freeman said. “What has changed?”

Dobkin said the trees have changed. “Trees grow a lot in 20 years,” he said. “There are more trees, and some people plant trees under power lines.”