Power outages after hurricane Irene: Are utility crews prepared for them?

Extra crews are being lined up to deal with power outages, and officials are urging residents to stock up on batteries food, and water before hurricane Irene hits.

Jin Lee/AP
The Staten Island Ferry leaves the terminal on Friday in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City ordered the mandatory evacuation of about 250,000 residents in Manhattan for preparation of Hurricane Irene.

With widespread power outages anticipated along the East Coast this weekend, extra utility crews are already on the road to help get things back to normal after hurricane Irene churns through.

Progress Energy in North Carolina is tripling its workforce – bringing in 660 crew members from various states, including some from Florida who will drive up behind the storm on Saturday and stop in South Carolina until it’s safe for them to start restoring power in the north.

Louisville (Ky.) Gas and Electric deployed 260 line technicians, safety specialists, tree trimmers, and team leaders to Pennsylvania and Virginia on Friday morning.

At the Brunswick nuclear power plant on the North Carolina coastline, extra staff are on hand from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Reuters reports.

Officials are urging utility customers to stock up on batteries, food, and water and to make plans if they need to relocate to a place that hasn’t lost power.

Some customers are getting special attention: those who have medical devices that require power. They are on priority lists for restoring power, but some utility companies have been calling them in advance to make sure they have alternative arrangements in case it takes several days.

Utility social-media sites are kicking into high gear as they post storm updates and prepare to communicate with customers about outages and power restoration.

“There’s a strong desire [among customers] to be in the know and to be helpful ... to their friends,” says Scott Sutton, spokesman for Progress Energy, which recently launched a mobile-phone app so people can easily report outages and see maps of where power is down or restored.

Another popular communication tool at Progress is an automatic call to any number a customer designates, once power is restored – to eliminate the need to drive into a storm-ravaged area to check.

Consumer advocacy groups that have raised concerns about slow response times after previous storms will be watching to see how well companies handle Irene’s messy footprints.

The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel asked the state this summer to fine Pepco, which serves 778,000 customers in Washington, D.C., and surrounding Maryland counties – because of unreliable restoration work in the wake of other storms, Gazette.Net reports.

Pepco announced Wednesday it had requested the help of 600 workers from other utilities, including 150 from Ohio who had already arrived in the Washington area.

“This storm has the potential to cause extensive power outages that could require crews to work around the clock for multiple days,” said Thomas Graham, president of Pepco Region, in a statement. “This is an all-hands event and every employee will assume a second job to support restoration efforts.”

For experienced utility crews, once a storm blows through and it’s safe for them to work, it’s “prime time for them ... and they enjoy being able to restore power to people,” says Mr. Sutton of Progress Energy. “They work long hours ... 16- to 20-hour shifts in not good conditions.”

They usually get paid time-and-a-half by the company that’s borrowing them. That’s good incentive for them to volunteer – but also good incentive for utility officials to look closely at weather forecasts and find that balance between being prepared and overstaffing at great expense.

Some utility employees are canceling vacations so that all hands can be on deck.

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