Utility customers fume days after Floyd; Thousands complain of delays in restoring power and cable

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nearly 41,000 customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. were beginning their fifth day without power this morning as the utility scrambled to deal with what it described as unprecedented damage from last week's visit of Hurricane Floyd.

"With the ice storm in January, we were talking about branches down on wires," said Brenda Pettigrew, a BGE spokeswoman. "This time we are talking about entire trees. There are stubborn jobs in every area of our service territory."

In Baltimore, about 1,000 households had power but were still lacking another seeming necessity of modern life -- cable television.

It was one thing to miss the Ravens' home opener Sunday or the new fall shows that were beginning this week, but for at least one customer of TCI Communications, the city's cable provider, falling behind in soap operas was the toughest to take.

"I've been watching those shows for a long, long time," Ophelia Mattison, 86, of Northwood, said of "The Guiding Light" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Her daughter was just as upset. Not because she missed the soaps, but because she couldn't get anyone to answer the phone at TCI, which has 110,000 customers in Baltimore.

"I've been calling and calling, and all I get is a machine," said Deborah Garner, 45.

BGE customers were expressing similar frustrations. Bill Harne of Ellicott City said the loss of hundreds of dollars in spoiled food, living by lantern light and brewing coffee on his gas grill are not nearly as frustrating as trying to get service, or answers, from BGE.

Even after getting past the recorded message, Harne said, "the people who answer the phone can't tell you any information at all."

Effort to improve

"We understand it is frustrating to them," said Pettigrew. She said the utility had taken more than 200,000 calls since the storm hit on Thursday.

"It's no wonder that in the early hours of the storm people had trouble getting through. But we have taken remedies," she said. "So, for the most part, people are able to get through now."

BGE stopped taking any business calls yesterday, assigning all operators to handle emergency calls, Pettigrew said.

"We've had few busy signals today, so we think we're doing a pretty good job in that area," she said.

TCI took similar steps, bringing in 10 more people over the weekend to field calls, but still found the phone lines jammed.

"We're coming out of the woods, but we're still asking people to be patient," said TCI business operations manager Michael Hewitt.

At the height of the storm, about 14,000 TCI customers with power had no cable service. Yesterday, that number hovered between 750 and 1,000. Hewitt said most should have their service restored by today. Customers who lost service will be refunded the cost of the days their cable was down.

Rules of engagement

TCI was hampered by the rules of storm engagement, which put cable company crews at the end of the repair line -- BGE goes first, followed by telephone repair crews from Bell Atlantic.

Managers of the city's cable television office, which monitors TCI's performance, said the company was doing its best to restore service. Cedric Crump, the city's cable program compliance officer, said TCI lost service to almost 60 percent of its customers because of power outages Thursday.

"There's nothing they could have done to prevent it," Crump said. "They deployed their people. But BGE is the first utility to go in the area because their equipment is life-threatening. They have to secure the situation, and then Bell Atlantic goes in, and when they get out, the cable guys go in."

In Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties, 200 households that have power still do not have cable service, said Doug Sansom, vice president and general manager of Comcast Metropolitan Systems, which has more than 320,000 cable customers in those counties.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but, literally, there are tens of thousands out there who don't have power and, therefore, don't have video," said Sansom. "We can provide video service today to most of all our customers, but if they don't have power, they can't watch anyway. When BGE brings up their network, ours will automatically power itself up.

"This was a pretty bad storm," he said. "It did a lot of damage to trees and lines."

About 200 trucks have been out since the storm performing more than 1,000 jobs a day to restore and maintain service, he said.

In Anne Arundel County, about 350 cable subscribers of the county's two providers -- Jones Communications and Millennium Digital Media -- remained without service yesterday. Both companies were using generators to provide service in areas where the cable system's power was down.

In Carroll County, Prestige Cable TV reported as many as a quarter of its 28,700 homes lost service during the storm, most for brief periods on Thursday. Only about 175 didn't get it back until Friday.

"There was no major damage to the system," said general manager Mark Krider. "The people, I think, realize what went on -- an act of God. We were ready and prepared for it."

Thousands without power

BGE's Pettigrew said that Anne Arundel County had the most households without power yesterday, 15,300. By midnight, all but 8,800 had been restored. Throughout the metropolitan area, 40,900 remained without power in the first hours of today.

Pettigrew denied widespread rumors that BGE was hampered in restoring service by financial cutbacks that affected its repair crews and its teams that trim trees to limit storm damage.

"We have not had any layoffs in our distribution area," she said.

She confirmed that the utility sometimes cuts off power for a short time as it restores power to an area.

"There are times that we have to take service out of area in order to safely bring back service to other areas," she said. "These outages usually last from 15 minutes to an hour."

Pettigrew said trees and branches continued to fall during the weekend, cutting off power days after the storm had passed.

After the flood

Elsewhere, residents were continuing to cope with the aftermath of widespread flooding.

Damage in Harford County, where the riverfront town of Havre de Grace suffered severe flooding, has been estimated at more than $3 million, officials said.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured Harford yesterday, as public works crews cleaned debris from roadways and repaired bridges.

"It's a pretty comprehensive effort to get everything cleaned up and repaired," said Doug Richmond, Harford's acting emergency management coordinator.

In Caroline County , which was inundated with 15 to 18 inches of rain, county and state road crews have been working 12-hour shifts to repair nearly three dozen roads.

Late yesterday afternoon, about 10 still needed significant work, said Bryan C. Ebling, Caroline County's emergency services chief. But all roads were passable, some with temporary repairs.

"We're coming along real well," Ebling said. "Everything is at least back to normal, although it'll be a long time before all the roads are completely done."

Somerset County officials say they are continuing to hear about flood damage to small businesses and private homes, particularly from poor and elderly residents who lack insurance.

In Crisfield, most merchants are back in business, still reeling from 6-foot waters that covered most streets in the downtown business district.

Geraldine Smith of the Rosemont area of Baltimore said knowing of such hardships made it easier to put up with going without cable TV for a few days. Her service was restored Sunday evening.

"I really wanted to see the national news about the flood and the weather and whatnot," she said. "But I knew that the electric company had to get in first and do the electric work, that was the most important thing. I was fortunate in that the only thing I didn't have was the cable."

But former city schoolteacher Virginia Wells of Walbrook was not so sanguine. "It's a pain in the well, it's a pain," said Wells, who lost her service completely for one day, but has been experiencing service interruptions ever since.

Sun staff writers Scott Higham, Dan Thanh Dang, Chris Kaltenbach, Sandy Alexander, Sheridan Lyons, Chris Guy, Jackie Powder and Lisa Respers contributed to this article.

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