The power and the powerless

With being out in the weather no longer a gamble, people return, slowly but surely, to the Atlantic City Boardwalk yesterday.
With being out in the weather no longer a gamble, people return, slowly but surely, to the Atlantic City Boardwalk yesterday. (ED HILLE / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 30, 2011

WHILE AN elderly and literally powerless couple paced in a Peco parking lot yesterday, a dozen employees were holed up in the basement "Storm Room," powered by caffeine and sugar.

"No one is answering the phone," said Barbara Middleton, 77, of Blue Bell. "It's just a recording."

People like the Middletons want and need their power back on - the sooner the better - and a beautiful day just made it feel worse.

"We know our customers are inconvenienced," said Peco spokesman Cathy Engel Menendez, inside the windowless room at the Plymouth Service Building, in Plymouth Meeting. "We want to get the lights on for them."

As of yesterday afternoon, Engel Menendez said, 168,000 customers were still without power in six counties, and 90 percent of them would be back on by tomorrow with the remainder "before the holiday weekend."

The Middletons thought that they were in the clear Sunday, enjoying the evacuation visit by their granddaughter from Ocean City, when they found themselves among the 500,000 Peco customers to lose power. They drove to Plymouth Meeting to get someone in person. Ray Middleton, a retired electrical engineer, said that he knows what causes the outage on his street during storms, how to fix it and even how to prevent it from happening again.

"It would take about three minutes to fix," he said.

Peco has approximately 4,000 workers in the field restoring service, Engel Melendez said, including independent contractors and workers from out-of-state utility companies. Some were put up at the Hampton Inn across the street, which lost power over the weekend, she said.

A board in the Storm Room with "Priorities" written across the top, had specific hospitals, water pumping stations, and other essentials written beneath it. Households are prioritized by which outage, if fixed first, could restore power to the largest number of customers.

Sunday's high winds caused the most problems, Engel Menendez said, knocking trees and branches into power lines in more suburban areas, which generally fare worse during major storms. Bucks County had approximately 70,000 customers still without power yesterday afternoon, while Philadelphia had just 2,500. A "couple hundred" customers, most near flood-prone areas, had their power turned off before the storm.

Areas with underground wiring generally fare better in storms, Engel Melendez said, but are susceptible to flooding and take longer to fix.

Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, said that Peco is generally "well regarded" for its restoration efforts. Restoring more than half its customers a day after Hurricane Irene passed through was an "impressive metric."

"This was an exceptionally powerful and difficult storm," he said.

The Middletons, who said that about eight households lost power on their street, said they did eventually speak with someone at the Plymouth Station and hoped to have power on by tomorrow.

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