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Power Outage Crisis Requires Prompt Reform

About seven in the morning on Tuesday, January 6th –- just 36 hours before we were to sign off on pdf pages for this month’s issue, an underground cable fault occurred in a Pepco vault below New Hampshire Avenue between 18th and R Streets, NW. The result was three power cables and multiple feeder lines to fry causing a major outage that zapped over 6,000 customers — meaning meter accounts as opposed to people; of the latter, approximately 20,000 were affected (not to say anything about the hapless Hotel Dupont guests and other visitors).

With the exception of a few isolated buildings here and there, the impacted area stretched roughly from Dupont Circle and 20th Street all the way to 14th and from about U Street south to N and Rhode Island Avenue. The damage to cables and switches turned out to be massive and it wasn’t until 11 hours later that lights and heat came back on — except for a small group of residents clustered around 18th and R and S Streets who had to wait until late the following day.

It goes without saying that the neighborhood listservs were buzzing all day and well into the night. Although we were not able to monitor those that day since we also were in the dark (which explains why our publication was delayed by 24 hours), we did wade through the one that serves Dupont Circle area folk; we have no doubt that what we saw there was not much different than the postings on others.

We were struck by –- for the most part — messages that, while frequently critical of Pepco or of the city agencies that should have been proactive but were not, the criticisms leveled were rational and generally had the tone of offering constructive criticism rather than crazed invective.

The apparent failure of the AlertDC system to do any alerting was especially deserving of criticism. Nothing ever showed up in this writer’s email (confirmed, obviously, following power restoration and an hour wading through the day’s accumulated stuff). Puzzling indeed given that the system pumps out multiple messages all day long alerting to minor traffic incidents, minor temporary street closings, and what-not. One comment in response to a posting by a community leader that caught our attention was right on target:

“You should invite someone from the Mayor’s emergency command staff to come to the meeting and provide an explanation of why the AlertDC system has yet to even acknowledge the outage? This is a BIG deal. What is their protocol? Does PEPCO not even notify the DC emergency center when there is a widespread power outage, especially in the winter? Here we are with an emergency alert system in below freezing weather, with a power outage approaching 12 hours and not one iota of information. Where is the Mayor’s emergency command staff on this? Did everyone quit on December 31st? God forbid we should have a really large emergency.”

Excellent point indeed.

Long-time Caroline Street resident (and a former contributing reporter for this publication) Greg DuRoss posted a very informative series of observations, questions, and suggestions which we believe need to be given serious consideration. Following is his message, in part:

“I work in emergency management and this event clearly demonstrates that there [was] insufficient preparedness on the part of PEPCO. A no-notice event such as this one is what really tests preparedness, and clearly both PEPCO failed and the District fell short of the expected level of performance. It is not a question of IF we will have major events, it is matter of WHEN they will occur. We have aging infrastructure, and DC is circled on terrorist maps with a big red X on a little white house not far from Dupont Circle. . . .

“Below are some points and questions that can serve as a starting point for discussions and oversight hearings to both hold people accountable and ensure that our government and service providers become better prepared to respond to emergency situations. [Ed. Note: For reasons of space, we have selected but just a few; all are worth consideration.]

“. . . What is the PEPCO/DC government/news media reporting protocols for situations like this? Did it work the way it should? If so, then I dare say there needs to be changes in the protocols. If not, why not? Why was there a dearth of information early on? Was it released but not reported by news media? [Ed. Note: The InTowner never received any press advisories from the mayor’s office, the emergency management agency, or even Pepco (though, in fairness, when we called its media relations office Bob Haney responded quickly with as much info as he had, which, unfortunately, was quite limited; it seemed that his office was the last to be clued in).

“. . . What are the protocols for reporting emergency information to HSEMA by other DC gov agencies, utility companies, and other service providers? Did it work in this instance? What are the standards, decision criteria and management chain of command for disseminating information via AlertDC? Was it followed in this instance? . . . Lots of traffic lights were out including major intersections like 14th and U and I did not see any traffic reports even though I routinely see such messages on AlertDC. Why were there no reports and updates of the traffic issues associated with this outage? Only after someone called the Mayor’s emergency command center did AlertDC send out a message concerning the shelter location that had been opened.”

As we stated above, constructive criticism was the norm and it needs to be taken seriously. We hope our new mayor is listening.