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Lights Are Out and Everyone’s Home

Lights go out — for five days for some Potomac households.

While most people enjoy the occasional meal out, Carol Feder may have reached her limit last week. After Tuesday’s storms, her home on River Falls Drive was without power until Saturday afternoon.

“We had not eaten in the house since Tuesday at noon,” Feder said.

Feder was one of many across Potomac who lost power during last week’s storms, leaving parts of Potomac in the dark for longer than New York was after the recent Northeast blackout.

Coincidentally, Feder was in New York during the Aug. 14 blackout. She wondered why it took only 26 hours for power to be restored to 10 million people in New York, and Pepco could not get the lights back on for a few hundred thousand.

“Somehow in Montgomery County, they couldn’t figure it out,” Feder said.

Others in the area are also wondering why it took so long to get the power back on. “It seems like Potomac is worse than anyplace I’ve ever been,” said Murray Berman, co-owner of Hunter’s Inn, who has operated restaurants across the region.

To Berman, it seems that Potomac loses power too frequently.

Investigations into Pepco’s response are primarily handled at the state level, said County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1). “I feel certain that the Public Service Commission will look into this,” Denis said.

Pepco has three weeks to file a report with the public service commission, said Pepco spokesperson Bob Dobkin.

Denis does not plan to wait for their action, however. “I think we want to use whatever authority we have as the county level,” Denis said.

Feder hopes some changes will be made. “I’m not looking to see whose heads can roll. I’m just looking for somebody to be proactive. Let’s figure out how to fix it.”

DOROTHY TERRY, spokesperson for Pepco, said the major Northeast blackout was a completely different type, and that was why power was restored more quickly.

In the Northeast blackout, Terry said, a few key pieces of equipment could be replaced in order to restore power to a substantial number of customers at once.

Last week’s outage required the replacement of many different power lines, each one restoring power to only a handful of residents. “With this you’re dealing with a lot of equipment,” Terry said.

Pepco does not always know when power is out for an individual home or small group, said Dobkin. “We have no way of knowing that the wires to your house are down,” Dobkin said.

While Pepco can monitor the main circuits which power 800-1,500 homes, a smaller transformer which may power a block can go unnoticed until affected residents complain.

This seems to have been the problem for Feder. On Saturday morning, most of her neighborhood, except part of her block, had power restored. When she called Pepco to register the problem, she encountered a maze of touch-tone menus, none of which resulted in talking to a person.

“You feel helpless in trying to, at least, inform them,” Feder said.

That attitude toward the customers has Denis angry. “These are Pepco customers who pay their bills,” Denis said. “These are real people, these are not numbers on a page. … I don’t think there was adequate acknowledgment that people were hurting.”

Pepco was doing all it could, Dobkin said. In some cases an employee would walk the length of a circuit looking for branches which could be shorting out the wires. “Each one had to be removed,” Dobkin said. “We try to find as much damage as we can.”

Dobkin did acknowledge that there were some glitches in Pepco’s response. “This is the first storm with our new technology,” Dobkin said.

The computer system, which features terminals in the trucks, went down. “Something was wrong with the software,” Dobkin said. “We went back to the system of using radios,”

FEDER’S LOSS of power caused her to throw out a refrigerator’s and freezer’s worth of food. “Wednesday night I emptied everything out,” she said.

She was frustrated to have disposed of the food, stating that if she had known that power was not going to be restored her family would have eaten or donated it. “We kept saying, ‘It can’t last this long, it can’t last this long,’” Feder said.

The food which Feder had to replace was only part of the economic impact of the storm.

“Wednesday night probably cost us $3,000-4,000,” said Berman.

Berman had a packed restaurant when power went out at about 7 p.m. While those who had finished eating paid and went home, others weren’t as lucky. “When the power goes out, we can’t cook,” Berman said.

Some customers waited until almost 9 p.m. for the lights to come back on Wednesday night, to no avail. “A lot are here because they have no power at home and they want a meal,” Berman said.

Vicki Dorman, who was without power for 36 hours, found a silver lining to the outage. Dorman has electric heat, so a summer outage is far less dangerous than one during the winter. “It was hot, and the kids slept in the basement,” Dorman said.

WHILE WEDNESDAY night hurt some businesses, the storms and power outages affected the first week at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Across the county, 33 schools, including Potomac Elementary, Pyle Middle and Wootton High, were closed on Aug. 27, the second day of school.

“I think we took it in our stride,” said Linda Goldberg, principal of Potomac Elementary. “A lot of [teachers] came in and worked on lesson plans and classroom setup, anyway.”

While individual closures are fairly common, closing so many schools is unprecedented in recent memory, said MCPS spokesperson Kate Harrison.

Some students didn’t mind the outage so much. Jonathan Segal, a junior at Whitman wasn’t able to do his assignments. “The computer was down, so we couldn’t do homework,” Segal said.

Wootton was closed on both Wednesday and Thursday.

“The system made the right call,” said Michael Doran, Wootton’s principal, who said 30-40 rooms were without power until late Thursday. “I was here all day. It was stuffy, and the kitchen was shut down, so the kids wouldn’t have been able to eat.”

Other county students found alternative ways to finish their assignments. “[They were] doing homework by flashlight,” Dorman said.

As late as Friday, two schools, Bel Pre (in Silver Spring) and Garrett Park elementary schools remained closed because of a lack of full power.

In the case of an individual school closure, the school is not typically required to make up the day, but the school system has not yet decided if some schools will be forced to make up the days. “At this point teachers are working with students to make up the material that was missed,” Harrison said.

Schools do not receive any special treatment when Pepco works to restore power, said Terry.

Pepco’s first priorities are major facilities such as hospitals and public safety concerns such as police and fire stations.

Schools come on line whenever the neighborhood they are in gets power. “We don’t single out schools,” Terry said.

<1b>—Alex Scofield contributed to this article