It’s been a month since the powerful thunderstorm–a derecho to be specific–knocked out power to most of Rockville and the Mid-Atlantic. But let’s call a spade a spade–it was a massive power outage, a blackout, during the hottest days of summer. Most lost power for days, some for a week. As we discovered, if you lose the internet, you’re back in 1979; if you lose electricity, you’re back in 1879. Anger boiled over in the days that followed, but now it seems nearly forgotten. Before our memories fade, what did we learn? Here’s my list, culled from talking with neighbors, reading the newspapers, and scanning the listservs:
1. Pepco doesn’t know your power is out unless you tell them. Don’t assume they have some fancy computer system that notifies them automatically that you’ve lost power, assume that your neighbor has called, assume it’ll fix itself, or assume that they’re busy and you don’t want to trouble them (poor dears!). Call them at 877-737-2662. Write this number down and put it on your fridge–another power outage will occur and you’ll want this handy. Many people said they called but Pepco thought their power had been restored, so call daily to ensure they have the correct information. David Greene noted that he used his mobile phone to, “monitor the Pepco outage map, and they marked our power as restored several times during the week when it was not actually restored. I called them many times to get us back on their map.”
2. Pepco prioritizes work based on the number of outages. That makes sense–first tackle the jobs that will benefit the most people–if they have the correct information. But if you and your neighbors don’t call Pepco, they will assume everything is okay (see #1 above). You might want to visit your neighbors and check to see if they’ve called.
3. If you have FIOS, your “landline” phone won’t work. How disappointing to have the latest technology and discover it’s useless in a power outage. My FIOS system came with a battery backup, but it didn’t last long enough. Fortunately my cell phone was fine and I could call Pepco. Linda in Twinbrook suggests going to a “thrift store, yard sale, whatever, and buy a landline phone that does NOT require batteries” but David Greene believes this won’t work: ”True landlines provide power over the wires to your phone, but mobile phones and digital networks must rely on external power. Digital networks, such as FIOS, provide regular phone jacks so you can use your regular corded and cordless phones, but those are not landlines. If you have FIOS, then all your phones need external power to operate.” Confused? I’m relying on my cell phone.
4. Everyone needs to be prepared for the next power outage. Here’s a start:
- A cell phone is essential to call Pepco but a smartphone will allow you to get news from the web and monitor Twitter. As I traveled around town, I tweeted the status of stores, gas stations, and traffic signals so people knew where to go. A phone is only as good as its battery, so have a charger for the car (forget about going to Radio Shack for batteries–they’ll already be cleaned out).
- Battery-operated radio, flashlights, and fans. Please, don’t use candles.
- Have $40-$100 in cash. The power outage knocked out ATMs and credit card machines, so stores were accepting cash only.
- Make friends with people in different neighborhoods. Power outages are random, so someone is bound to be unaffected and have lights, air conditioning, and a outlet to charge a phone. I bonded with friends in the West End who graciously invited me for drinks and dinner in their cool, brightly lit home. After three days without power, I felt like I had gone to a resort.
- Consider buying a generator, but use it wisely. We had a couple neighbors with gas-powered generators that created noxious fumes and an irritating hum. I’m not sure what it would be like if everyone had one (although we stay inside and live with the inconvenience for a few days). Perhaps we can agree to turn them off between 10 pm and 6 am so people can sleep on a warm night with their windows open? If you want to buy a generator, Robert Ostland suggests that you can, “run your fridge, freezer and a window AC unit and some lights with a 5500W portable for $600, but you have to know what you are doing. Otherwise you can spend between $3000 and $10,000 for a whole house system.”
- Don’t drive around looking for gas. Everyone else is doing the same thing so the traffic is bad and if a gas station is open, the lines will be long. Just wait at home if you can or try walking or use the bus (they were running!).
5. The City of Rockville was far more responsive than Montgomery County. The storm and subsequent power outage meant that trees fell across streets and sidewalks, traffic lights were out, and water pumps weren’t working. A lot of staff came in to work overtime to clear streets, manage intersections, and prep cooling centers. Some people suggested that the City should have also provided ice, but I think that’s a low priority compared to the other issues. A couple things helped tremendously:
- Maintaining safety at traffic intersections, either by having signals that continued working thanks to battery-backups or just installing temporary stop signs. I can’t believe how many people don’t see the signal if it’s not lit or assume dead means green. Scary.
- Getting information up on the Website and out on Twitter. Rockville had some problems powering the server, but eventually, information was getting out to residents, who were as isolated as if they were in a snowstorm. MoCo’s website, on the other hand, was pathetic–it only had the latest information about the golf tournament.
6. Shattered myth #1: Power outages are due to downed lines. There’s been some effort to underground lines, which I support just because overhead lines are so ugly, but it’s not a guarantee it’ll prevent an outage. New Mark Commons is entirely serviced underground and they were one of the last neighborhoods to be restored. Drew Powell mentioned that his section of Woodley Gardens has underground power lines but that they, “experience even MORE outages than everyone else. Our underground cable was installed by PEPCO in 1968. The cable has a 20 year life expectancy. In 2012, 44 years later, the cable has yet to be replaced.” As Brad Plumer noted in the Washington Post, “burying power lines isn’t the only way to respond to a storm–and often it’s not even the most effective strategy.” Some neighbors talked with the utility workers and discovered the outages were not only due to downed lines, but worn lines, blown fuses, and damaged transformers. If you still want to support underground lines through an online petition, you’ll find one at change.org.
7. Shattered myth #2: Pepco hears your complaints and they’re doing the best they can. Turns out, Pepco’s reliability is lower than average but their profits are higher than average (see “Five Myths About Pepco” in the Washington Post). And despite the extent of the latest power outage, Pepco isn’t willing to admit to its shortcomings nor sympathize with its customers. At a Montgomery County Council meeting, Pepco’s regional president Tom Graham stated that it wasn’t reasonable for people “to be upset that they’re out of service for a week or more.” How thoughtful.
8. Shattered myth #3: The City Council, County Council, or Congress can do something about this. Sorry, it turns out none of them has any authority or influence. They can hold hearings, take public testimony, and issue reports but ultimately, what they think, do, or say won’t affect Pepco. It’s a utility regulated by the State of Maryland, specifically the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC). Pepco is a business, so the best way to get their attention is their pocketbook. That’s what Congressman Chris Van Hollen did by asking the Public Service Commission to reject Pepco’s recent request for a four percent rate hike (it was denied). The Maryland Public Service Commission is one of the state’s most powerful and influential state agencies, overseeing electricity, gas, telecommunications, and taxicabs. It consists of just five persons, all appointed by the Governor, so if you really want to affect change, you can complain to the Commission (who’s a bit insulated since their appointees) at the upcoming public hearing on Tuesday, August 7 at 7:00 pm in the Montgomery County Office Building in Rockville. But if you really want to make a difference, complain to Governor O’Malley because he’s an elected official and appoints the PSC. He’s been keeping a low profile and the most he’s done is produce a video asking “Marylanders to look out for one another” and issue an executive order to study how to “strengthen the grid and improve its resiliency.” O’Malley needs to clearly show that he recognizes there’s a problem (not just that outages “can lead to a decreased quality of life”) and that he’s going to hold public utilities accountable (not “solicit input and recommendations from experts”). Please, stop the jargon and have some guts so I can feel good about voting for you next time.