* Washington region power outage to last up to a week
* Record heat prompts outrage across Mid-Altantic region
By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, July 2 A brief, violent storm that
brought the U.S. capital to its knees in the midst of a heat
wave dramatically highlighted that millions of Americans remain
vulnerable to extended power blackouts because of a reluctance
to invest in infrastructure and patchy, ineffective regulations.
Electrical utilities are advising customers in and around
Washington that it may well be a whole week before all power is
restored after the unusually potent storm that ravaged the
mid-Atlantic region on Friday. Many customers are outraged as to
why it would take so long.
More than two million people in the eastern United States,
including more than 400,000 in the greater Washington area, were
still without power on Monday.
The storm, which claimed at least 22 lives, shuttered
businesses, stores and gas stations and littered the region with
fallen tree limbs and downed power lines, many of which are
still strung along poles above ground.
It hit during a period of record-breaking heat and
immediately shut down air conditioning systems across an area
well known for its hot, humid summers and poor air quality.
The power failures did not spare some of the region's movers
and shakers. The head of the Energy Information Agency, Adam
Sieminski, lost electricity and spent the night in his basement.
Even the spokesman for the president of the United States
was not exempt. "Sorry you don't have power. Neither do I,"
White House press secretary Jay Carney emailed a reporter on
"Pepco is not a federal agency," Carney said, referring to
Potomac Electric Power Company, the Washington-based
utility, that was the target of many residents' outrage.
Even so, Carney said he thought "the federal emergency
response has been sound."
Customers still without power in the sweltering Washington
metropolitan area are still wondering how long the outages will
Last August some utility customers in Richmond, the state
capital of neighboring Virginia, lost electricity for 11 days
after Hurricane Irene struck, according to an assessment
published this year by state utility regulators.
After Hurricane Isabel in 2006, some customers of Dominion
Virginia Power, the utility serving some of Washington's
sprawling suburbs, were still without power 16 days after the
storm ended, said the report by the State Corporation
Commission, Virginia's utility regulator.
HOMELAND SECURITY CONCERNS
Daniel Kaniewski, a former disaster response adviser to
President George W. Bush, said the power failures in the
Washington area were "unprecedented" and that this was the kind
of outage that "keeps Homeland Security officials up at night."
Security officials were constantly studying and calculating
the effects and possible responses to events like massive power
blackouts, though mainly on the assumption that such outages
would be caused by terrorism - either by physical attacks or
through cyber warfare.
Kaniewski, now deputy director of the Homeland Security
Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the
controversy over the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane
Katrina in 2005 "re-energized" federal officials to undertake
emergency planning with an "all hazards approach." That meant
that contingency planning should cover both man-made and natural
But he said the public should become aware of the
limitations of both government and industry to respond to
serious disasters. "People should be able to sustain themselves
for 72 hours," he said.
Paula Carmody, who represents consumers as the People's
Counsel for the state of Maryland, said it was easy to talk
about involving federal authorities more actively in managing
natural disaster responses, but much harder to specify what they
might do better.
"Who's going to pay for that?" she asked. "You know who is
going to pay for it - the ratepayer ... If you want something
like this fixed in 40 hours, it's not going to happen."
Federal and local officials said the minute-to-minute
responsibility for deciding how and where to restore electrical
power after damaging storm lies directly, and exclusively, with
the utility companies themselves.
These utilities have the repair equipment, skilled
personnel, and knowledge of how their systems work, and are
responsible for making decisions on which problems to address
first. Authorities encourage them to prioritize their responses
so that facilities like hospitals and retirement homes have
power restored early.
Over the past weekend with damage widespread in the
Washington area, officials said utilities should coordinate with
others around the United States and in Canada, which may be able
to supply additional workers and equipment.
Ken Schrad, spokesman for Virginia's State Corporation
Commission, said companies like Dominion Power are
"entirely responsible" for managing their systems.
Regulators like his agency have some say over rates and a
limited ability to investigate disaster responses after the
fact, but they have little or no power to direct responses to
emergencies while they are happening.
This is also largely true of federal agencies, though there
are steps they can take.
In Ohio and West Virginia, where federal disasters have been
officially declared, the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), harshly criticized for its post-Katrina performance, has
started to move in extra generators, particularly for use in
facilities like hospitals, as well as emergency communications
gear. It can also mobilize medical personnel if needed.
In the Washington area, many consumers who suffered
electricity outages also lost telecommunications, involving
wireless and landline phones and data networks.
Like electric utilities, communications infrastructure is
entirely owned by private companies like Verizon and AT&T
that are responsible for restoring operations after a
The most the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can do
is to turn on a system it maintains to receive voluntary reports
of outages and pass on relevant information to other agencies
such as FEMA. If FEMA requests it, the FCC can send experts out
into the field to coordinate network repairs, though the
hands-on work is all done by personnel supplied by private
Private experts and public officials alike say that whatever
measures, if any, may be implemented in the wake of the
Washington blackout, someone will have to pay. Either through
rate increases or tax hikes, the same people sweltering through
the latest disaster will have to foot the bill.