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Thick power lines snapped like thread

Twinbrook is among the many cities hit by a fierce storm on US’s east coast Friday night. Yashwant Raj writes.

world Updated: Jul 07, 2012 23:28 IST
Yashwant Raj

For the fifth straight day on Thursday, Jonathan Bautista got up in the morning, left home for work dreading the night. He has returned every night since last Friday to a sweltering condo in Twinbrook, Maryland: “I just eat, shower and sleep.” Thursday morning, Bautista left home with his son, Clarke, and headed straight for a shopping mall. Their laptop, phones and other electronic devices were low on battery, close to shutting down.

Twinbrook is among the many cities hit by a fierce storm on US’s east coast Friday night.
For a few days, no one quite knew what had hit them. It turned out to be a new weather phenomenon called Derecho. That’s a tornado that travels straight, without twisting and turning like a tornado. The storm that hit mid-Atlantic homes Friday night, when most Americans were asleep, spoke no recognisable language.
Traveling at speeds around 70 mph (102 kmph), it yanked big trees off the ground, uprooted poles and just ripped apart anything standing in its way. The first sign of trouble, most residents in the storm’s path, say was the TV screen turning black suddenly. Most of those TVs stayed black the rest of the night, the rest of the weekend and the rest of the week. Baustista was still without electricity Thursday morning.

Seven days?
The morning after the storm, Ram Srinivasan, a Bethesda resident, got up earlier than he normally does. “I was at Giants (a grocery chain store) at 6 am,” he says, adding, “I knew this was going to be a long week.” He just wanted to pick up a bag of ice for his cooler. Others had other ideas: they wanted the same, but in multiples. Residents of Washington DC area know the drill. Washington DC area is DC plus its suburbs in the neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia (NCR=Delhi+Gurgaon+Noida)
The Potomac Electric Power Company is the region’s BSES — the main supplier of electricity and its chief villain. From the morning after the storm, it started running recorded messages preparing customers for the worst.

At 11 pm, July 6, ran the promise, hardly comforting. Saturday night was fine, as the house would still be a little cool from the air-conditioning.
Sunday, however, was another story. The hot sweltering day outside was just as hot and sweltering inside. Food inside the refrigerator began to smell . A restaurant in DC decided to give away the food than have it rot. Homes with gas stoves were lucky, they could still cook some of their food, unlike those with electric stoves. Some families like the Srinivasans ended up eating out all their meals. They are vegetarians, which is not easy.

But seven days?
PEPCO says it was just as helpless as its customers. The Derecho was nothing the utility could foresee. The storm tore through the region, wreaking havoc on the utility’s power lines. Power lines thick as rope snapped as thread.

At least 17 people died in related accidents: trees falling on homes, cars, overhead power lines. “You have to look at the extent of the damage,” says PEPCO spokesman Marcus Beale. The utility leaned on a network of “mutual assistance,” crews from sister utilities in the region. No utility, apparently, maintains a staff big enough for such emergencies. They pool together their crews when needed.

But that was clearly not enough for the suffering customers. Millions of homes were in the dark, with no help in sight. PEPCO found itself right in the middle of another storm, one that shredded its reputation, once again.

The power utility first found itself in this kind of trouble in the winter of 2010, following an unprecedented snowstorm. Very soon, it was rated among the worst power utilities in the country, not unlike DESU (Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking) at its best (or worst).
“We nearly died,” says an Indian embassy official who had just moved to Washington DC then. Nothing works without electricity: cooling or heating, cooking stoves (in electric stove homes) and even the garage. With the car stuck inside the garage, you cannot drive to the nearby grocer or escape to a hotel. The Srinivasans had considered moving into a hotel, as many people did. And why not? Why roast in that heat?
“Our neighbors, who were leaving town, left their keys with us,” Srinivasan says, adding, “that saved us.” With temperature hovering around 37 degree celsius, airtight homes can turn into ovens.
With nothing else to do — no TV, no music, no computer games — sleeping becomes the least attractive, but only alternative. “I just lie down in bed and sleep,” says Clarke, Bautista’s son.

Surviving...
PEPCO likes to keep up with the times, if not related demands, through a nifty app that lets customers map their travails. With a few clicks on your smartphone, the app lets you pay bills and, in times of outages, track your fate. Enter you phone number and area code to find out the status of outage for your area. If the problem has been evaluated, wait for a crew to be assigned to fi it. Else, steel yourself for a long week. That’s the promise, the ambition. But the app rarely works as desired; the status update is rarely up to date. Getting a human response from the utility is equally perilous — your status could have many versions.

“I just wanted to know why my apartment block was left out,” says Bautista. But he never got a satisfactory response. So he stocked up his cooler — an ice box — with sodas and decided to spend as little time as possible at home.

He and Clarke took their laptops and other devices and set themselves up in a mall many miles from their home. They plugged in, ordered themselves something to drink and settled down for a long wait. By Thursday night PEPCO had revised its estimates and now said it hoped to restore power to every customer by July 8.
Ten days!