My message to Pepco in the wake of the DC Derecho

The storm hit around 10:30 on Friday night.  Our power in Bethesda went out almost immediately.  Hundreds of thousands were without power and it looked like a tornado had gone through many areas.  We all knew that it would be a few days before the power was restored.  Pepco released a statement saying the conservative estimation on total restoration was Friday at 11pm.

If you look back at previous posts of mine and in my Twitter feed, you’ll see that I initially supported you in this crisis.  I moved here only 2 years ago and I have resisted being a Pepco hater just because the cool kids do.  I’ve lived through multiple day outages in other states.  I get that infra-structure is an issue — an expensive one that people don’t want to pay for.  I am married to a guy that has made a career out of managing crisis communications.  I know that there are some things that just can’t be controlled.  I also know that there are things that can be controlled.  One of those things is messaging.  Since I happen to know a little bit about communications, I’ll offer you some unsolicited advice and perspective from the standpoint of somebody that tends to stay unbiased in these situations and is still without power.  I’m not convinced that you will read, listen or even care what I have to say, but one of the purposes of this blog is for me to express myself and at this point  it’s therapy for me.

I could just limit my feedback to a Twitter post and say what many others say:  “@PepcoConnect, you suck”.  I actually do think you suck, but I’m going to tell you why.  And, it will take WAY more than 140 characters because A) I can be long-winded and B) there are way too many things wrong with how this has played out.

But, first I’m going to preface it with the fact that I know that there are thousands of people working hard to restore power to everyone.  I know that they are sweating it out in unbearable conditions to do their jobs.  I know that many of them are without power themselves.  I know that many of them have traveled thousands of miles to get here.  I know that they missed the 4th of July with their families.  I believe that those people truly care about their jobs and the people they are serving.  I thank them from the bottom of my heart and I appreciate their hard work and dedication.

The things I take issue with come from within the organization.

  1. You took to the airwaves immediately, pledging to work around the clock to restore power.  Your self imposed deadline of Friday at 11pm was “conservative”, but that was when you had reasonable confidence that the entire system would be restored.  The fatal flaw here was giving a definitive deadline.  It would have been much better to say, “we estimate that we’ll have XX% of the system up” by (a certain date), acknowledging that there would be cases that would take more time.  You should have been conservative with that XX% number instead of the timeline because……..
  2. On Wednesday, you sent out a self-congratulatory press release saying that you had beat your deadline by 2 days and that 90% of the system was back online by Wednesday.  You referred to the “pockets” that were still not restored without much explanation.  I’m here to tell you that those “pockets” are actual people.  And, you should have referred to them with more empathy.  You also should have avoided patting yourself on the back until 100% were back up.  I think that it would have been fine to say that 90% were back up 2 days before the deadline….but, only if you followed it up with, “but that’s not good enough for us because not everyone is and here’s the step by step plan with how we are proceeding…”  Instead, you are promising robo-calls to the individual customers that remain without power.  And, speaking of robo-calls……
  3. I received one of those.  On Tuesday.  It said that our house should have had power restored and I was instructed to press #1 if it was, #2 if it wasn’t and #3 if it was blinking on and off.  Stupidest robo-call ever because I wasn’t home to know.  And, upon my arrival home to check, it wasn’t.  And the tree that was down on a live wire three doors down was still there.  At this point, I tweeted my frustration and was immediately answered by Pepco that they were sorry and I should call again.  My husband did call and he was told crews were on the scene.  Not true. I was at the house.  No crews were on the scene.  Also, they told him that our situation required “special equipment”.  Apparently, that is code for “you aren’t on the priority list…simmer down now”.  If it is the case, here’s an idea:  when the crews are on-site and determine that special equipment is needed, leave a notice for the affected customers that says, “We’ve been here.  We’ve assessed the situation and have determined that your problem will require specialized equipment”.  How hard would that be?  Not hard.  Meanwhile, the Pepco app showed that many of the outages in my neighborhood had been resolved.  And, speaking of the outage map…….
  4. It’s a piece of garbage.  It gives no real information.  It says outages are resolved when they aren’t.  It says crews have been assigned one day and then unassigned the next.  It is conveniently updated in the middle of the night.  I was up until midnight last night.  When I went to bed, it said crews were assigned and our resolution date was Friday at 11pm.  This morning at 7am, the crews had been unassigned and the status had changed to Sunday at 11pm.
  5. The story in Bethesda seems to be that Pepco won’t touch the lines until the trees are removed, which is Montgomery County’s job.  Montgomery County says they won’t remove the trees until the power is dealt with.  Here’s the deal:  Montgomery County is huge.  Trees were down on power lines all over the county.  How could this be a “Bethesda” issue?  Pepco and MoCo appear to be in a pissing match, with weary customers and constituents caught in the middle. If I had to take sides, I’m going with the county.  Why would they alienate one of the most affluent areas (read: voters) in the area?  Speaking of affluent…..
  6. Relatively speaking, we are not.  And, most of our neighbors aren’t either (whether they want to admit it or not).  We are all people who live in this area for different reasons.  But, because we have a Bethesda address, that is the perception.  I’m not going to argue that it doesn’t take more money to live here.  It does.  And yes, by many people’s standards we are affluent.  Again, I would not classify my family that way, but I’m certainly not asking for sympathy.  But, the sinister side of me (I know, it’s shocking that I have a sinister side) begins to wonder about the “priority” system in restoring power.  I get that hospitals, nursing homes and businesses are going to have priority.  But now, as I look at the outage map in MoCo and see that the majority of the outages are in Potomac, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, I start to think that maybe decisions are being made based on socio-economics.  Are we at the bottom of the list because somebody decided that we have the means to find other accommodations?  I know the fact that extreme SE DC is also without power blows a hole in that theory….but my sinister side can find an equally disturbing scenario — that those on the other end of the proverbial spectrum are less likely to make enough noise for the media to notice.  And speaking of the media……
  7. I just saw some neighbors of mine on CNN.  Your communications plan has failed when CNN has people on the air saying that their power is still out, trees are still down on lines, they call you 10 times a day and “Pepco won’t respond”.  Regardless of whether or not you have or have not responded, when CNN says you haven’t, you haven’t.

I have so much more to say, but I have other things to do.  Like fill my car for the third time this week (I normally do it once) because I’m staying in Alexandria and driving my son to camp, which is closer to my house than Alexandria.  I have to call the boarding facility to see if my dog can stay there another couple of days.  I need to buy groceries for my friends, who graciously offered their house to us while they are out of town on vacation.  And, since they arrive home tomorrow, I have to figure out where we will stay next.  I have to go to my house, which is over 100 degrees inside to pack my son for a 3 week vacation to his grandparents house (where mercifully, he will have A/C and doting grandparents instead of a crabby mother).  Oh, and I need to try and get some work done.  I’m a contract employee, paid by the hour, so I don’t have the luxury of taking paid leave.  But, I’ve already lost a good 3 hours a day to this situation, so on top of all of the money that this outage is costing me, I’m also taking a hit to my paycheck.  And, the company I work for has lost my productivity.

Adding insult to injury, I received our electric bill in my email today.

Seriously, Pepco — get it together.

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