"It's cold out. People are frustrated. I do empathize with them," said Robert F. Powelson, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, who toured Philadelphia's storm-damaged suburbs Wednesday with Gov. Corbett.
"The early indications are the magnitude of the storm damage is almost Sandy-like," said Powelson, who said that his Kennett Square home remained without power on Wednesday and that Peco had notified him that service was not expected to be restored until Saturday.
Peco said most customers were on target to be restored by Friday, down from 623,000 powerless at midday Wednesday. The utility, which has 1.6 million customers, said that 715,000 customers lost power at some point during the ice storm. Hurricane Sandy knocked out 850,000.
As of noon Friday, about 279,000 Peco customers had no electricity. Chester County was most-impacted, with about 95,000 homes and businesses without power. Montgomery had 89,000 still out, Bucks had 64,000. In Delaware County, 26,000 customers remained down and in Philadelphia, 5,000 Peco customers were still effected.
"The thing that makes this storm different than Hurricane Sandy is the cold," said Cathy Engel Menendez, Peco's spokeswoman. "Once Sandy passes, the weather was mild, and our crews were working in fairly good conditions."
Repair crews now are working on a "cut and run" schedule under which they quickly repair outages, Engel Menendez said. Gov. Corbett's entourage on Thursday had to be diverted to another photo opportunity because the site he was scheduled to visit had already been repaired, and the crew had moved on.
The ice storm and hard freeze created additional challenges for utility crews working on slick surfaces or trying to navigate around hardened mountains of plowed snow along roadsides.
But public sympathy for Peco's hardship descended as rapidly as temperatures in homes without heat
"Our past experience, people have a threshold of about 48 to 72 hours before the novelty wears off from an outage," said Jennifer Kocher, the PUC spokeswoman. "In this case, we were seeing criticism in less than 24 hours."
PUC will review Peco's response, examining its planning and weather forecasting, the number of personnel it organized, and how the crews were deployed. It will also examine whether Peco had sufficient supplies in the right locations - transformers, poles, and cable.
Criticism was already expressed on social media of Peco's vegetation management programs. And a perennial debate that accompanies every storm was renewed about whether utilities should replace overhead lines with buried cables.
"Even the best tree-cutting program in the world would not have averted these outages," the PUC's Powelson said. "And undergrounding sounds great, until you start looking at a million dollars a mile for cable and trenches through everyone's yard; then, people think differently."
This week's ice storm was cruelly concentrated on Peco's service territory, particularly the Philadelphia suburbs. Peco customers accounted for 85 percent of the state's outages. "The storm seemed to settle right over us," Engel Menendez said.
The concentrated damage, though, may help accelerate the recovery because more resources now are being directed to Peco.
By Friday, Peco expected to be joined by workers from PPL Electric Utilities, Public Service Electric & Gas Co., FirstEnergy in Akron, Ohio; Connecticut Light and Power, Hydro Quebec, National Grid, American Electric Power in Ohio, Atlantic City Electric, Commonwealth Edison in Chicago, Northeast Utilities of Connecticut, Central Maine Power, Duke Energy, and Pepco Holdings.
While utility repair crews race to restore power, others moved in to assess the damage.
Anthony Hoffman, owner of Ace Public Adjusters in Holmesburg, said he has been busy for weeks assessing snow, ice, and tree damage from a succession of winter storms. He said food spoilage and water damage from frozen pipes caused by electric outages are also covered by most homeowners' policies.
"There's a lot of ice dams on roofs and trees fallen on houses," he said. "It's been quite a week. Quite a month, actually."