Local News

Durham Residents Vent Frustration At Duke Power

Posted December 20, 2002 9:33 a.m. EST

— Duke Power customers lashed out at the company Thursday for poor planning, material shortages and unreliable communications after the Dec. 4 ice storm.

About 30 people signed up to speak at a hearing held by the state 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 the commission has scheduled around the state to evaluate Duke Power's and Progress Energy's emergency preparedness in response to hundreds of complaints about the utilities' performance after the ice storm.

The ice storm brought the state's fourth largest city to "an abrupt and frigid halt," recalled Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who suggested that the commission analyze work reports of Duke Power personnel to see where they were assigned immediately after the storm.

Bell has accused the company of not concentrating enough resources in Durham.

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

E.O. Ferrell, a Duke Power senior vice president, responded that while the company's "communication with the elected officials and with the emergency centers did not function the way we would have liked," the utility's efforts were hampered by the magnitude of damage in the western Triangle.

Earlier this week, Duke Power joined CP&L officials at a hearing before state regulators in Raleigh where both companies defended their emergency protocol.

Complaints have poured in from the western Triangle, where 147,000 customers were affected and power-restoration efforts were the slowest in the Carolinas. One week after the storm, 20,000 remained without power in Durham and 8,100 in Chapel Hill.

Duke Power used 11,000 workers to restore power to more than 1.3 million customers left in the dark in the Carolinas. Many of the 5,200 linemen recruited from other utilities didn't arrive in the Triangle until two days after the storm.

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

Several former and current Duke Power employees who spoke Thursday lauded the company's response to the colossal blackout and pinned blame on the trees - those towering pines and oaks with overgrown limbs that smashed into power lines. Duke Power's estimated costs are more than $115 million, which company officials say will be absorbed internally.

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

Muna Mujahid complained that company officials refused to give her a one-week extension on her bill even though she was without power for eight days.

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

To avoid a repeat disaster, Durham and Chapel Hill government officials are investigating options to bury power lines. But Ferrell said Monday that in 1991 his company studied using underground lines for its entire 52-mile power distribution system and the estimated cost was $15 billion. That cost would be passed on to the consumer, he said.

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