WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 Sunday.
“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.
Last August some utility customers in Richmond, the state capital of neighbouring 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.
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 disasters.
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 natural disaster.
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 industry.
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.
Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Russell Blinch and Christopher Wilson