Pepco still didn’t apologize for their response to Hurricane Isabel. Pepco President Bill Sim and other upper management came to testify before the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee on March 25.
Over the course of the meeting, committee members were generally sympathetic with the attempts Pepco has made to change their practices, but committee member Tom Perez (D-5) brought up a meeting he and Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) had held last year.
That meeting had been scheduled before Isabel struck and hundreds of angry residents came to vent their frustration.
“Many walked out angrier than when they arrived,” Perez said. “The one thing that they were hoping to hear, that they did not hear, was a simple apology. That simple apology would have gone a long way.”
But that apology still did not come. Instead Pepco stuck to the same message they’ve had all along — the late August storms and Hurricane Isabel were the largest outages in company history, and Pepco did the best job it could.
Perez was not satisfied with that explanation. He pointed out that the meeting had not been scheduled in response to Isabel, and that while Pepco kept discussing the Isabel response, he was interested in their response to other storms. “The irregular is rapidly becoming the regular,” Perez said.
In part because of public anger at the time it took to get the lights back on, Pepco hired an outside company, James Lee Witt Associates, to audit their response.
“We believe that all of his recommendations have merit,” Sim said. One of the overarching themes of the report was that while Pepco may have done well as a utility, they failed to recognize that the outage was a community event.
Many residents were angered that they had been told that power would be back on in seven days, but that time grew longer for many, and Pepco failed to communicate with residents. “We’ve got to find a way of doing that,” Sim said.
Sim acknowledged some other shortcomings. He pointed out that Pepco’s average for duration and frequency of outages is low by industry standards, but he realizes that does not matter to someone whose power is out. “To the average customer, my average doesn’t mean a thing,” Sim said.
With that in mind, Sim discussed the priorities that Pepco has set for restoring power. He noted that the company has 361 feeder lines — power lines which serve about 1,000 customers — in the county and that 290 of them have some kind of life support on them.
“If everybody gets priority, nobody gets priority,” Sim said. Pepco plans to work with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District of Columbia, to identify priorities specific to each jurisdiction.
The council’s Health and Human Services Committee has provided Pepco with a list of facilities which provide life support and which should be considered priorities. “Maintain an awareness of that list,” said committee member George Leventhal (D-At Large). Leventhal is also chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.
“What we’re trying to do with all of this is to take the lessons learned from Isabel and use it to improve day-to-day,” Sim said.
Perez was concerned that Pepco is not going to implement the changes. He pointed out that similar measures were called for after the ice storm in 1999, and they were not effectively implemented.
“We heard these promises after ‘99,” Perez said. “What is going to be different, now?”
Perez expressed an idea about a customer bill of rights, noting that such a program was put in place at the federal level in the airline industry.
Sim said that he could not comment on Pepco’s willingness to accept such a thing until he sees the details of it, further noting that his company is held to a set of standards by the state Public Service Commission.
“A lot of our residents feel powerless in more ways than one,” Perez said.