City, county leaders press for more outage information

Leaders of Maryland's seven most populous jurisdictions say utilities couldn't immediately pinpoint the addresses of power outages during the cleanup from the deadly June 29 derecho storm, hindering their efforts to send out emergency crews.

In a letter Tuesday to the Public Service Commission, the leaders asked the state's utility regulator to explore improving disclosure of outage locations, burying power lines and evaluating power companies' staffing. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the executives of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties signed the letter.

Leaders said the matters are particularly pressing, given a flurry of heat-related deaths reported during a 12-day stretch of intense heat that included the storm. State health officials raised the death toll to 19 on Tuesday, adding an elderly Prince George's County man to the tally. No other information on the victim was available.

The letter also stressed a need to ensure that communities aren't "disabled by a single weather event."

"[A]fter the most recent winter and summer storms, and the very real possibility of an increasing number of extreme weather events, it is clear that something must be done," the leaders wrote, referring specifically to efforts to prevent future widespread power outages.

Gov. Martin O'Malley also made comments Tuesday supporting a look at burying some power lines. He said he had been in touch with the CEO of Washington-area utility Pepco on Tuesday and intended to talk with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and PSC leaders as well about enhancing what he called the "resiliency" of the state's electric grid, including stepping up tree trimming near power lines to reduce the frequency and severity of storm-related outages.

In Baltimore, where seven heat-related deaths have been confirmed since July 2, emergency officials were eventually able to work with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews to locate the last remaining outages on about 350 blocks Friday and Saturday, said Robert Maloney, the city's director of emergency management. But when outages were more widespread, the information wasn't at BGE officials' fingertips, though it may not have been as helpful then, Maloney said.

Information on outage locations is important as city officials make efforts to prevent deaths, said Ian Brennan, spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. Elderly residents with underlying chronic medical conditions are the most at risk in the heat.

"That was our immediate concern as soon as power goes out," Brennan said. "We believe that the efforts we did saved lives."

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said officials there sent BGE officials information on outage locations based on residents' complaints, but it would have helped to know more precisely where outages already were reported.

"I'm not faulting BGE for their performance; the question is, are there additional measures that we can take in the future to avoid these incidents happening?" Kamenetz said.

In Howard County, officials sought to dispatch firefighters door to door early on in the response, but the outage information was not available, County Executive Ken Ulman said. It wasn't until five days into the outages that GIS mapping experts for the county and the utility were finally able to translate grid outage information into a list of addresses, Ulman said.

"Those are areas that I think we can improve upon with technology," Ulman said. "I think we can do better, and I think the utility companies would agree with that."

The letter urges the PSC to require utilities to provide more detailed outage locations on their websites. BGE's website provides a map that shows the general areas and concentrations of power outages, but does not depict street-level information. Pepco, the utility for the Washington region, allows website users to search for and zoom in on outage areas by address but doesn't provide the specific addresses of outages.

The municipal leaders acknowledged that burying power lines is an expensive proposition. BGE officials have said it could cost $1 million per mile of power lines, while PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian said it could cost each customer about $400 every year. But they urged Nazarian to explore it nonetheless, at least looking for areas that could most benefit from underground wires.

Speaking to reporters while touring the Silver Spring offices of a "green" energy company, O'Malley said, "We have to have a very honest discussion about the degree to which we might underground our utilities."

The letter from local leaders also questioned utilities' dependence on out-of-state crews' assistance in major outages.

"[A] rapidly arising weather situation exposes the flaws in that system," the leaders wrote. They encouraged the PSC to explore mandatory staffing levels and grid maintenance standards.

BGE officials, in a statement, were receptive to the concerns.

"We appreciate the concerns expressed by the executives. Obviously we are always looking for ways to enhance our restoration efforts and look forward to working with them in a productive dialogue on behalf of our customers and their citizens," the statement said.

Regina Davis, a spokeswoman for the PSC, confirmed that commissioners had received the letter. The commission does not comment on pending matters. Nazarian said July 5 that a review of the utilities' storm response performance would begin three weeks after power was restored from the extensive outages, which occurred Sunday. Utilities, including Pepco and BGE, filed a request Monday to have that extended two weeks, to Aug. 10.

The local leaders' letter aimed to alert the PSC and utilities that they plan to be involved in discussions about lessons learned from the derecho storm and heat wave, Ulman said.

"We're the ones on the ground with our fire departments and police departments and opening up cooling shelters, doing the hard work to keep people safe during these emergencies," he said. "We wanted to make sure we're squarely at the table during these conversations about what we can do collectively to improve the situation in future disasters."

O'Malley sympathized with those who were without power for as much as a week, particularly nursing homes that were without power despite regulations requiring they have backup power generators. Those either were not in place or failed to operate in the recent outage, he said.

"Nothing has made people feel more un-empowered than being without power for seven hot days," he said.

Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.