October 30, 2003

Conectiv Power Delivery Delivery and its affiliated company, Potomac Electric Power, have hired an independent consultant to assess their preparedness for and performance during Hurricane Isabel. However, there was little doubt after a legislative committee hearing how many of Conectiv's customers in northern Delaware feel about that.

All but one of 19 people who testified before the housing and community affairs committee of the state House of Representatives, and two state senators, who joined the panel related anecdotally experiences that put Conectiv in as poor light as the utility left them for several days after the storm. When they were done, the lawmakers, who had been careful to praise the efforts of the work crews which restored power, cast a few barbs of their own.

Representative Robert Valihura, its chairman, announced that further hearings are likely. He did not indicate what, if any, legislative or other action the General Assembly might take.

He referred to "extraordinarily long power outages ... longer than we have ever had before." But he ruled out any direct questioning of company officials by the witnesses and, with one exception, did not require them to respond to the criticisms.

Conectiv president Thomas Shaw referred to Isabel as "the most devastating storm ever to hit Conectiv Power Delivery's service area."

Conectiv Power Delivery is a Conectiv operating subsidiary and Conectiv, in turn, is a subsidiary of  Washington, D.C.-based Pepco Holdings. The holding company also owns Potomac Electric.

Senator Cathy Cloutier honed in on that corporate structure and asked if it had any bearing on alleged lack of responsiveness to Delaware customers. Shaw replied that it did not, noting that his and the other operating company function autonomously of each other.

He did acknowledge to Representative David Ennis that employees who took telephone calls from customers who were able to get beyond the automated answering system were mostly located in Salisbury, Md., and southern New Jersey. A few northern Delaware-based customer service representatives were pressed into service as the calls mounted, he said. Joseph Rigby, president of Conectiv Power Delivery, said the volume of calls during the first four days of the storm emergency was equivalent to the number received during three months of normal time.

Shaw said that the company is in the midst of conducting an internal appraisal of its storm performance and that James Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and acknowledged expert in emergency preparedness, is doing his own study. Shaw did not say whether results of that study will be made public and Delaforum had been unable as this article was being prepared  to reach a company spokesman to find out.

Rigby prefaced public testimony at the hearing on Oct. 28 by narrating the same Power Point presentation that, as Delaforum previously reported, the company has been showing to various civic associations.

He said power failures affected 109,000 of his company's 279,000 Delaware customers. It also sells electricity on southern Delaware and the Eastern Shore counties of Maryland and Virginia. In

Delaware, he said, 63% of customers experiencing what the company prefers to call 'outages' were back on line within 24 hours and 81% within 48 hours. It was nearly a week before everyone had power again.

He said 260 line crews from the company and 400 brought in from other companies under a mutual assistance arrangement worked, on average, 16-hour shifts. They did their job without incurring any injuries. Other utility companies had some fatal injuries coping with the storm, he said.

Poor communications with customers and a desultory approach to tree trimming to prevent limbs and entire trees from falling on power lines were the main complaints by those from an audience of about 125 attending the hearing in the Brandywine High School auditorium.

John Rodowski said he telephoned 16 times "without getting through to a human being" and was disconnected most of those times by the automated system. He also went to the company's buildings in  downtown Wilmington and near Christiana but was unable to access anyone who could or would tell him when to expect his power to be restored.

Steve Kleiner said he was told to get that information from the company's Web site, but it was not explained how he could access the site without electricity.

Still hard to reach

When Delaforum called what seemed to be the most likely number in the Verizon directory to reach a Conectiv executive, it ended up with another company. That happens frequently, the woman who answered said, because the listed number is wrong.

Using the number she supplied, Delaforum reached an automatic system which played 10 minutes of 'elevator music' interspersed with commercials before a customer service representative based in Maryland came on the line and transferred the call to an appropriate Delaware extension.

One of the commercials proclaimed that Conectiv "takes a great deal of pride [in] being connected to its community."

Larry Phillips testified that his need for information was more critical because his paralyzed son depends on electricity to operate a wheelchair and a home elevator and a long interruption requires alternate arrangements. When he explained the situation to Conectiv, he was asked if it was life-threatening. "There was no middle ground between life-threatening and everybody else," he said, adding that he was finally told power would be back on two days sooner than it actually was.

Valihura raised the matter of restoration priorities, asking for an explanation of why "lights were burning the whole time" at the Astra Zeneca corporate complex opposite Fairfax while that community and several others in the area were dark. He did not receive a response nor did he press the matter.

Joe Greigg said that, during the storm emergency he saw four crews along Centreville Road, including one with marking indicating it belonged to a company in Alabama apparently doing 'routine' tree trimming.

Eileen Jurman, on the other hand, complained that "every time I call Conectiv they tell me it's the trees," but the company does not seem willing to cut them back with a result that her neighborhood averages three or four power failures a year. John Brosos said residents of his community have been trying without success for several years to get trees threatening power lines trimmed.

When Representative Deborah Hudson later raised a question about what she said appeared to be reluctance to trim trees in at some neighborhoods, company forester Richard Johnstone acknowledged that "we backed off" when residents in the Kennett Pike areas complained about trimming.

Rigby testified that Conectiv Power Delivery budgeted $16 million for what he referred to as "vegetation management" in the period of 2000 through 2003, about double what it spent in the previous four years.

When it comes to tree trimming and removal, "we have to be careful what we ask for," Gail Van Gilder, of Delaware Greenways, said. She accused the company of indiscriminately 'clear cutting' trees without providing proper replacements.. Johnstone later denied that it does.

Thomas Boetcher testified that he has found Conectiv Power Delivery crews unwilling to install such things as guards on transformers when they respond to power failures. He displayed a squirrel-chewed cable as illustrative of the type things that could be prevented by taking such steps.

"A great many of us here do not understand [Conectiv's] problem," said Walter Domorod, the only one whose testimony was favorable to the company. As a result of deregulation and lack of a guaranteed return on investment "they have had to cut back on people" and are hampered in such things as being able to effectively maintain lines because they are limited in such matters as how much tree trimming they can do.

"There is no way we are not going to lose power," he said.

2003. All rights reserved.

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