Blackouts Drag on as Power Customers’ Patience Wears Thin
U.S. utilities from Virginia to Maine are adding angry customers to their inventory of storm damage as more than 1.11 million homes and businesses remain without power four days after Hurricane Irene moved into Canada.
Electric utilities on the East Coast have brought in thousands of workers to help to repair power lines and other equipment amid flooded neighborhoods and fallen trees. Most customers should have power back by the end of the day tomorrow, utilities said. For other areas, including Vermont which was struck by record floods, full power restoration may take weeks.
“Usually, people are very cooperative for the first three days after a natural disaster,” said Matthew Cordaro, former chief operating officer of the defunct Long Island Lighting Co. and now a Shoreham, New York-based industry consultant. “After three days, they do not give a damn what caused it. They want their lights back on.”
Irene made landfall Aug. 27 as a Category 1 hurricane in North Carolina before striking New York the next day as a tropical storm. The weather system knocked out power to as many as 6.69 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to U.S. Energy Department estimates.
Utilities have made quick work in whittling down power losses by repairing high-voltage systems that serve tens of thousands, Cordaro said. Progress will slow now as repair crews tackle more isolated problems that affect fewer customers, he said. Last in line will be streets with only a few homes, or individual residences.
“I am frustrated,” said Adrienne Hutt, 65, who’s been without power at her hilltop home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, since a fallen tree knocked a utility pole and transformer across her driveway on Aug. 28. “I think what’s causing the frustration is, it’s really pretty scary.”
Connecticut had the most customers without power, 258,470 as of 8 a.m. local time, according to the Energy Department. Power in parts of Newtown, in the state’s southwest, won’t be restored until Sept. 7, Connecticut Light & Power said on its website.
“The issue in Connecticut right now is power. Power, power, power,” Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said at a press conference yesterday after touring damaged areas. “It is on everybody’s mind who is without it.”
Malloy declined to criticize the utilities’ response, saying regulatory review may come later. Power lines are tangled in downed trees from one end of the state to the other, requiring joint work by tree trimmers and power crews, he said.
“Usually when you have an outage due to a storm, it’s an inconvenience,” James P. Torgerson, chief executive officer of New Haven, Connecticut-based utility owner UIL Holdings, said at the press conference. “This has gone to where it’s a hardship for many customers.”
In Vermont, about 1 percent of customers lack power, according to the department’s report. “Complete restoration remains dependent on road access and could take weeks for customers who are still isolated,” Central Vermont Public Service said in a statement yesterday.
“A lot of people have 48 hours of patience,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley told reporters yesterday in Annapolis. “That 48 hours is up. People are getting understandably prickly.”
About 88,000 customers lack power in Maryland, down from a peak of 807,445, according to today’s report. Power system damage in the Baltimore area was the worst since Hurricane Isabel in 2003, with more than 80 percent of customers blacked out at one point, Constellation Energy Group Inc. (CEG)’s utility said in an e-mailed statement.
Pepco Holdings Inc. (POM), owner of utilities in the District of Columbia, its Maryland suburbs and the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, was “really quick” at restoring power, Maryland’s O’Malley said. He and other public officials had criticized Pepco for moving too slowly and not keeping customers informed about when they’d have power back after Hurricane Isabel.
In New Jersey, about 2 percent of customers remain without power today, according to the department’s report.
Of 15,000 utility customers still without power, 5,700 are out because of flooding, the company said in a statement today.
“There’s a multitude of problems out there, even getting around with the flooding and the debris,” Weyant said in an interview yesterday.
Slow to Survey
Public Service, New York’s Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) and FirstEnergy Corp. (FE)’s Jersey Central Power & Light have executed repairs quickly and methodically, Cordaro said. State-owned Long Island Power Authority and National Grid Plc, which manages its power lines, haven’t, said Cordaro, who sits on a committee with oversight of the utility.
“They were slow to survey the damage and develop a plan of attack,” Cordaro said. “They brought in crews before the storm hit, and that’s a grandstand play.” The result was idle crews while the utility surveyed damage, he said.
Long Island Power’s response has been “systematic,” Chief Operating Officer Michael Hervey said during a press conference yesterday at the authority headquarters in Hicksville, New York.
In Fairfield, Connecticut, Ken O’Toole, 48, watched as a tree blew over in the storm, tearing out the electric line and meter on his home. His neighbors have their power back now, while O’Toole, who stocked up on water, batteries and candles before Irene hit, waits with his increasingly restless 10-year- old daughter.
“She thinks I’m just going to snap my fingers and turn the power back on,” he said.
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