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Durham Residents Vent Frustration At Duke Power

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DURHAM, N.C. — Duke Power customers lashed out at thecompany Thursday for poor planning, material shortages andunreliable communications after the Dec. 4 ice storm.

About 30 people signed up to speak at a hearing held by thestate Utilities Commission in Durham, where 93 percent, or 107,000,of the company's customers were without power at the peak.

The hearing was the first in a series of public meetings thecommission has scheduled around the state to evaluate Duke Power'sand Progress Energy's emergency preparedness in response tohundreds of complaints about the utilities' performance after theice storm.

The ice storm brought the state's fourth largest city to "anabrupt and frigid halt," recalled Durham Mayor Bill Bell, whosuggested that the commission analyze work reports of Duke Powerpersonnel to see where they were assigned immediately after thestorm.

Bell has accused the company of not concentrating enoughresources in Durham.

In the storm's aftermath, the information Duke Power supplied"was often too general to give any value to emergency managementoperations," Bell said.

E.O. Ferrell, a Duke Power senior vice president, responded thatwhile the company's "communication with the elected officials andwith the emergency centers did not function the way we would haveliked," the utility's efforts were hampered by the magnitude ofdamage in the western Triangle.

Earlier this week, Duke Power joined CP&L officials at a hearingbefore state regulators in Raleigh where both companies defendedtheir emergency protocol.

Complaints have poured in from the western Triangle, where147,000 customers were affected and power-restoration efforts werethe slowest in the Carolinas. One week after the storm, 20,000remained without power in Durham and 8,100 in Chapel Hill.

Duke Power used 11,000 workers to restore power to more than 1.3million customers left in the dark in the Carolinas. Many of the5,200 linemen recruited from other utilities didn't arrive in theTriangle until two days after the storm.

Ferrell said that the company tried to secure backup personnelthe day the storm blew into town, but that officials at neighboringutilities were not willing to release crews because they, too, werein the path of the storm.

Several former and current Duke Power employees who spokeThursday lauded the company's response to the colossal blackout andpinned blame on the trees - those towering pines and oaks withovergrown limbs that smashed into power lines. Duke Power'sestimated costs are more than $115 million, which company officialssay will be absorbed internally.

Other speakers said they weren't upset with the linemen, butwith company management.

Muna Mujahid complained that company officials refused to giveher a one-week extension on her bill even though she was withoutpower for eight days.

"I couldn't afford to go to a hotel so I just had to brave itout," she said.

To avoid a repeat disaster, Durham and Chapel Hill governmentofficials are investigating options to bury power lines. ButFerrell said Monday that in 1991 his company studied usingunderground lines for its entire 52-mile power distribution systemand the estimated cost was $15 billion. That cost would be passedon to the consumer, he said.

Other hearings before the commission will be held next month inRaleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, Salisbury and Henderson.