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Baltimore City Council holds hearing on BGE response to derecho storm

Mary Pat Clarke

Sister Ellen Carr, who lives in the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi convent in Waverly, remembers all too well the derecho storm that pummeled the Baltimore region during a heat wave June 29.

With no electricity, "believe me, it was hot in the building," Carr said, noting that firefighters had to carry one resident on dialysis out of the building, part of which is affordable housing.

And there wasn't a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. truck to be found for several days after the storm, she said.

Carr was one of several area residents who urged the Baltimore City Council and BGE on Wednesday, Sept. 19 to communicate more and to put on a priority list those buildings and people who are known to be most in danger if the power goes out during a big storm.

"Thank you for looking to the future and how we can do this better," Carr told the council's Housing and Community Development Committee, which held a hearing that served as post-mortem on responses to the storm by BGE and the Baltimore City Mayor's Office of Emergency Management.

"This is not a gripe session. This is a fix-it session," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sits on the committee.

But she got a little testy when BGE senior vice president and chief operating officer Stephen Woerner said the average BGE customer was out of power for 43.6 hours after the storm.

"They don't live in my district," she said.

Clarke and Councilman Nick Mosby expressed displeasure at a BGE chart showing that Baltimore City lagged behind the rest of BGE's service area for several days in the percentage of residents that got their power restored.

And Genny Dill, secretary to the Hampden Community Council, testified, "Baltimore City was absolutely not a priority" for BGE.

BGE spokesman Robert Gould said in an interview that no utility has enough manpower to handle a storm of the magnitude of the derecho, but that BGE has about 3,300 workers, is adding manpower and opened a $12 million training facility in White Marsh last year.

Most of the complaints focused on the lack of a reliable priority list.

Dill told the committee that the Roosevelt Recreation Center, which was designated as a city cooling center, was without electricity for four days, like much of Hampden. The center was not on a city or BGE priority list, "and it needs to be," Dill said.

And she said few officials other than Clarke, who represents the area, called Hampden community leaders to find out who needed electricity most immediately.

"You want to know who's out? Ask us," Dill urged. "We want to help. Utilize us. Let's make this better next time, because this is going to happen again."

Clarke introduced a resolution Aug. 13, calling on BGE to appear before the council to explain its slow response to the June 29 derecho storm and address underlying grid and tree canopy problems that contributed to widespread power outages.

The Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates BGE, has already held public hearings of its own in the region, including in Baltimore and Annapolis.

But Clarke said she wanted representatives of BGE to come before the City Council as well "to talk about specific issues my constituents had" as the storm left about 750,000 residents without electricity for up to a week afterward.

Clarke represents north Baltimore, which was hit especially hard, with dozens of residences in Hampden and Roland Park being left without power long after the storm, she said.

The violent storm has been a catalyst for increasing concern about the reliability of Roland Park's power grid, because of frequent, unexplained outages three months before the storm.

Clarke said she doesn't blame BGE for its delayed response, because the storm was so unexpected and severe. But she said wanted the utility to provide "some preventive medicine" to make sure communities like Roland Park an Hampden don't have the kinds of problems they had.

"I would like (BGE) to discuss with us where their weaknesses are, with an eye toward improving their system," Clarke said.

In addition, she said, she wants BGE officials to go to neighborhoods and show residents where power lines and other equipment are, so that the public has a better idea of how the system works. She also said trees have been a problem in causing downed lines and a plan is needed for pruning the area's tree canopy.

City Arborist Erik Diehl told the committee that downed power lines got in the way of tree removal effort and also complained that the city's forestry division had to clean up a lot wood that BGE crews left behind. He too said he would like to have better communication with BGE.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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