The full strength of Hurricane Sandy won’t hit the Washington region for several more hours, but the storm is already wreaking havoc across the area. Federal and state offices, school systems and transit networks have all shut down on account of the weather. We’ll get an update from reporters and officials about how the region is preparing for the hurricane, and get the latest on what we can expect from the weather.

Guests

  • George Nelson Vice President, Engineer and Operations, Pepco Holdings Inc.
  • Bryan Russo Coastal Reporter, WAMU 88.5; Host, Coastal Connection, 88.3 (Ocean City)
  • Richard Sarles General Manager and Chief Executive Officer, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

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Dominion Virginia Power

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Baltimore Gas and Electric

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Transcript

  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a sex abuse scandal takes the British broadcasting world by storm. We'll measure the fallout of a brewing controversy at the BBC. But first, Hurricane Sandy rears its head in the Washington region. It's going to be a few hours before the full force of this storm hits the area, but it's already wreaking havoc here.

  • 12:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOfficials -- offices are shuttered. Transit systems are shut down. Schools are closed. Planes are grounded. And public officials, power companies and utilities are scrambling in advance and preparing for the worst. Joining us this hour to explore how Sandy is already affecting life in the region and what the weather may have in store for us later is Richard Sarles, general manager of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. He joins us by phone. Richard Sarles, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:51

    MR. RICHARD SARLESThank you for the opportunity to be on your show.

  • 12:07:54

    NNAMDIAllow me to have our listeners call at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments about Metro. Richard Sarles, Metro has been through a lot over the years. You've operated in storm situations before, even in the Snowmageddon storm of 2010. You ran limited service then, but you've suspended operations today indefinitely because of the storm. What factors went into your decision to shut down service, and what factors will go into your decision on when to reopen?

  • 12:08:26

    SARLESWe did suspend service for today, Monday. We'll make a decision with regard to Tuesday later this -- today, probably this evening. The fact is what went into our decision to suspend service both on bus and rail Metro access had to do with the weather forecast. We follow it very closely. And there were forecasts, and there are still forecasts, of very high winds exceeding 50 miles an hour, getting up to 60 or 70 miles an hour.

  • 12:08:54

    SARLESAlong with that -- when you get that kind of wind force and collateral damage that can come with it, along with the uncertainty of, you know, commercial power supplies in that kind of situation. Although I will say to you, utilities have always been very good in giving priority to WMATA. In this particular case, given the situation, I felt that it was safer for our customers and our employees to suspend service until the worst of it is over, and then we will determine when to restore service as we watch the weather forecasts.

  • 12:09:32

    NNAMDIWhat conversations did you have with leaders from other transit systems up and down the East Coast about this? It seemed like this is a storm that's basically knocked out transit from here at least all the way up through the New York area.

  • 12:09:44

    SARLESWell, as I understand it, now, we have -- even Boston is shutting down...

  • 12:09:47

    NNAMDIThat's what I was thinking, too.

  • 12:09:47

    SARLES...at two o'clock. So it's the entire Northeast corridor. Who knows? It may be the first time in history that all public transportation, but it all goes to the gravity of the storm. And we have to make decisions -- each one of us based on what the storm is going to do in our region.

  • 12:10:07

    NNAMDIBut did you also talk to people in the other regions, in New York and all the way up and down the East Coast? Is this in a way a kind of coordinated effort?

  • 12:10:15

    SARLESNot in that sense. We have been keeping abreast of what the other systems have been doing, but again, we have to focus on our region. What's going on in New York is not necessarily what's going on in Washington. So we follow the weather forecasts very carefully for the Washington area and made our decisions based on that.

  • 12:10:33

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Richard Sarles, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, about plans for Metro over the next couple of days in the light of Hurricane or maybe Tropical Storm Sandy. But you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments, you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org. Mr. Sarles, what plans does Metro have in place if power outages become an issue? How do you expect you'll be affected if outages throughout the region are widespread?

  • 12:11:05

    SARLESWell, again, right now, since service is suspended, there, of course, will be no impact on our customers, but we'll take that into consideration as we consider when to resume service. So we, obviously, have to have power to run the subway system. And as long as we have power after the worst of the storm gets through, then it will mean we can restore service that much faster.

  • 12:11:28

    NNAMDITypically, what parts of your infrastructure are the most affected by severe weather?

  • 12:11:33

    SARLESWell, it's, you know, areas that -- certainly, if you're outside and exposed, you have to be concerned about people on platforms, you know, on high winds. We also have to be concerned about any low-lying areas, although this system, having been built more recently, and many of the systems along the northeast corridor are in better shape to handle flood waters, you know, heavy rains and that sort of thing. And, of course, power to make sure as long as the utilities can supply the power to us, then we can operate.

  • 12:12:04

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. What does your neighborhood look like right now? How has your storm prep gone this far? You may want to call us, 800-433-8850. Richard Sarles, what conversations did you have with federal, state and county officials before you pulled the trigger to suspend service? Would your equation have had to change if, for instance, federal workers were expected to work today?

  • 12:12:28

    SARLESYes. There is a group of people that so-called council of governors -- governments that conference-call regularly, periodically throughout the day leading up to an event like this, and we keep each other informed as to what is planned. And also, we hear what's coming from the National Weather Service, so we can make certain decisions. So it's a well-coordinated effort among the county governments, the federal government, Metro, district government as to what's going on and what decisions will be made.

  • 12:13:03

    SARLESAnd as we saw that we would have to shut down and suspend service, we immediately notified all our partners in the region, and this was done after the five o'clock forecast that we had received last night and also just after the federal government decided that they would not be having people come into work today.

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDIBecause we're hearing that the most severe part of the storm is likely to hit this area later this evening, maybe tonight and overnight, have you heard from people who may suggest or be upset that they think you suspended Metro service too early?

  • 12:13:37

    SARLESActually, we have heard very little from folks, other than they know it's shut down. One of the key considerations here is that you never know precisely when the worst part of the storm is going to hit. It could be a little earlier. It could be a little later. But also, you have -- we take into consideration that we don't want to get people into work and they find no way to get home. So it's all of that put together helps to determine exactly when we shut down service.

  • 12:14:03

    NNAMDIRichard Sarles, thank you very much for joining us. We'll be staying in touch with Metro so that we can keep abreast of the situation over the course of the next couple of days. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:14:11

    SARLESOK. Please stay tuned. Thanks.

  • 12:14:12

    NNAMDIRichard Sarles is general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. We're talking about the effects in your region of Hurricane Sandy and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Chris in Kensington, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:31

    CHRISYeah. I just came from my -- my workplace had to shut down, they said, for the safety of our staff, and they're sending us home. And I come outside, and it's just like a gentle rainstorm out here. And there's -- the trees are dead calm. As of yet, no wind and very little rain that's -- coming from Michigan, I'm -- originally, I'm kind of stunned that everything's shutting down with this little bit of weather.

  • 12:14:57

    NNAMDII think the reason for this, Chris, has to do with what might happen later in the day. We had a situation involving snowstorms here a couple of years ago in which the federal government, for one, did not send home workers until three o'clock in the afternoon or so, and there were such widespread traffic jams that everybody was complaining that the call to have people sent home should have been made earlier, indeed that people should not have come in at all knowing what was happening later in the day.

  • 12:15:26

    NNAMDIAnd I suspect because of the uncertainty of when the full force of Sandy would hit, they didn't want to take that chance this time. So you may only be experiencing rain now, but all of the experts seem to feel that, later this evening and overnight, you'll be experiencing a lot more.

  • 12:15:43

    CHRISOK. So, yeah, I've just been listening to all the predictions saying that it's not going to happen and that the worst of it is not going to happen till later. So I work in an operating room, and I just felt it shocking that they sent the patients home this early when the weather wasn't that really bad. We should...

  • 12:15:59

    NNAMDIYeah. Well, I...

  • 12:15:59

    CHRIS...have taken care of those patients.

  • 12:16:01

    NNAMDIWell, I suspect by Thursday we'll be weighing in on whether or not these turnout to be good decisions or not, but, Chris, thank you very much for your call. Now, we turn to Bryan Russo, who is a coastal reporter for WAMU 88.5 and the host of WAMU's "Coastal Connection." Bryan Russo joins us by phone. Bryan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:16:19

    MR. BRYAN RUSSOHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:16:21

    NNAMDIBryan, Gov. O'Malley is already calling this a killer storm, and Ocean City is already seeing that firsthand. Even though the heavy stuff hasn't really hit us yet, people were tweeting photos earlier this morning of the damage done to the Ocean City pier. What have you been hearing and seeing about the damage that's already been done, what people are expecting will come later today?

  • 12:16:42

    RUSSOThis is a serious storm. I'm talking to a lot of locals who were telling me that this is the worst storm they've seen perhaps in their lifetime. A couple of people that have been here for many years they compare this one to the 1985 Hurricane Gloria which famously destroyed the entire Ocean City boardwalk. So far this morning that the high tide cycle that came in, it has not been kind to Ocean City.

  • 12:17:06

    RUSSOPretty much the entire downtown region south of 17th Street is completely flooded, knee-high water, in some cases even higher. What you're seeing is you're seeing water coming up over the seawall and surging into kind of this -- the two main arteries, Coastal Highway and Baltimore Avenue, in the downtown region. And then you're getting water rising up from the bay, and the two water -- the ocean and the bay are actually meeting in the middle, causing all of this water.

  • 12:17:37

    RUSSOOcean City is actually, you know, they evacuated yesterday, 17th Street and below, mandatory evacuation. They closed the Route 50 Bridge, which is the southern entry point into the island. Now, they have announced that they will be keeping the Midtown Bridge, Route 90, open. However, they're closing all lanes to motorists south of that bridge. So anything below 65th Street is now off limits to anyone that's left in Ocean City. It's devastating. The pictures that I've seen and what I've seen myself when I was in town a little bit earlier today is just -- I haven't seen anything like it.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDIBryan, it's my understanding that some of the action on the ocean side is going to be affected by a tide cycle with a full moon. Where does the tide fit in to all of this?

  • 12:18:24

    RUSSOWell, you know, the funny thing is -- and I guess it's not funny. It's more tragic. But any time we get a heavy storm, not a hurricane, not even a nor'easter -- but we can just get good bit of rain for an extended period of time, and if it comes at the right time with the tide cycle because of the way that Ocean City is, you know, the elevation of downtown Ocean City, it floods.

  • 12:18:46

    RUSSOIt's not an overly, you know, wide island or wide part in most places on the island. So any time we get any sort of weather event, there's some sort of flooding, and, you know, now, we're seeing catastrophic flooding in many places.

  • 12:19:04

    RUSSOI think tonight, what's going to happen in talking to some longtime surfers that like to watch the Weather Channel as a hobby, they tell me that what's going to happen is when the tide comes in tonight, it's going to be kind of like the perfect storm scenario that we've been hearing, where the tide, coupled with the full moon, coupled with the -- just the intensity of Sandy getting closer, it's -- there's going to be no respite from the waters that we're already seeing right now and it's going to get even worse.

  • 12:19:34

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Bryan Russo. He's a coastal reporter for WAMU 88.5. He's also the host of WAMU's "Coastal Connection" about how things are going in Ocean City, and we go to Blake, who is in Snow Hill, Md. Blake, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:49

    BLAKEHi. Nice to talk to you. Yeah, we're about 25 minutes south of Ocean City on the water and -- or near enough to it, and our road is largely flooded at the moment.

  • 12:20:04

    NNAMDIAnd what kind of winds are you experiencing there, Blake?

  • 12:20:07

    BLAKEIt's pretty strong right now, but it's mostly just rain and water. The power is still on. And everything seems pretty OK.

  • 12:20:18

    NNAMDIWell, from everything we're hearing, Blake, that wind is going to get stronger as the afternoon and evening progresses. And as we know, there are a lot of people, Bryan Russo, who were asked to evacuate. How responsive were people to the evacuation orders that were issued, Bryan?

  • 12:20:34

    RUSSOTo be completely honest with you, yesterday, when I was going through town and just kind of seeing the early effects of this, it was, you know, kind of business as usual in Ocean City. You would never, you know, believe that there was an evacuation order in place. Anything north of the Route 90 bridge, you know, taverns were filled with people watching football and, you know, having happy hour drinks and the whole thing.

  • 12:20:57

    RUSSOAnd you would see people -- I think people just got a late start because they kind of underestimated what the storm is going to be in lieu of, you know, the near miss of Hurricane Irene last year. I think there's kind of a misconception with locals that they've seen it all before and, you know, what the media does to hype up storms like this that, you know, they kind of discounted. And unfortunately, I feel like, in this case, a lot of people are going to be looking back in hindsight regrettably.

  • 12:21:26

    NNAMDIAnd, Brian, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 to tell us what's going on in your area. You can also send us a tweet using the WAMU #Sandy. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Bryan, a year ago, Irene threatened the region right in one of the peak times of tourist season, the week before Labor Day. A lot of people in the Washington region are busy right now trying to monitor the property that they own on the coast. What conversations have you had with people about who's looking after empty homes and property right now?

  • 12:22:02

    RUSSOI spoke with a couple of realtors the other day, and certainly, their phones had been ringing off the hook pretty much since Wednesday when this storm looked like it was going to be a serious threat. What happened was a lot of local realtors, and certainly, there's many here on the coast, they would literally be going into people's units and taking in porch furniture and kind of battening down the hatches if the nonresident property owner wasn't able to come down and do it themselves.

  • 12:22:30

    RUSSOBut I will tell you that yesterday, when I was up on the beach and even this morning, there aren't any -- even oceanfront condominiums or just single-family homes that aren't boarded up. And, you know, as the winds get stronger, they're going to have some damage to deal with tomorrow.

  • 12:22:48

    NNAMDIAre people who love bayside of the Delmarva Peninsula likely to see anything different in terms of the severity of the weather compared to the people on the ocean side, Bryan?

  • 12:22:58

    RUSSOIn some cases, it could be worse because I talked to many town officials who believe this is going to be more of a bay event than it is an ocean event because after the storm makes landfall, a few of the weather experts I talked to said that, you know, it's going to kick the water back out as it moves inland, but the bay is going to continue to rise. And we're seeing that this morning, where, you know, even when the tide went out, the bay waters did not recede.

  • 12:23:25

    RUSSOThey're still sitting still on one side of the island, in the bayside, you know, certain, you know, hotspots for tourists to go to, like Macky's Bayside, for instance, on 54th Street. It literally looks like it's an island right now, and the waters are not receding at all. So I think a lot of people that have property in the bay front are really going to see a lot of damage as the storm gets closer.

  • 12:23:49

    NNAMDIBryan Russo is Coastal Reporter for WAMU 88.5. He also hosts WAMU's "Coastal Connection." Bryan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:23:58

    RUSSOThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:23:59

    NNAMDIWe turn now to George Nelson, vice president of operations and engineering for Pepco Holdings Incorporated. George Nelson joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Nelson.

  • 12:24:10

    MR. GEORGE NELSONYes. Pleasure to be here this morning. Thank you.

  • 12:24:13

    NNAMDIPepco customers throughout the region got robocalls on Friday, warning us of severe outages this week. What kind of steps have you taken already to put yourself in, well, I guess, the best position possible to respond to the weather when the heaviest stuff hits later this afternoon and into this evening?

  • 12:24:30

    NELSONYes. We've taken a whole series of steps. There's -- we go through what we call a preparedness checklist, and we walk down and make sure that we have adequate supplies and materials. We also go through a process of acquiring mutual assistance, and we've been actively engaged in that process really since Thursday working with other utility companies up and down the East Coast and as far west as New Mexico in acquiring additional linemen and tree trimmers that can be brought into the Washington region to help support us in our efforts.

  • 12:25:15

    NELSONWe also go through what I would call some storm drills with our internal employees in making sure that they have assignments clear in scheduling situations where we're staffed and ready to go. So it's a very elaborate process that we go through probably, again, fully started Friday morning and continues as we speak.

  • 12:25:43

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Pepco, call us at 800-433-8850 right now. What parts of your infrastructure do you expect are the most at-risk in this storm?

  • 12:25:55

    NELSONWell, you know, we're anticipating this to be a heavy rain and long, sustained winds, and what that means is we're going to see an awful lot of trees come down. And when the trees come down, typically that means that they're going to be going through the power lines and bringing the power lines down.

  • 12:26:22

    NELSONSo I expect to see that we'll have an awful lot of tree damage bringing our wires down, breaking poles, significant, you know, damage to our infrastructure, sort of what we've seen in the -- in some of the past storms. But this is actually a much more significant forecast for high winds over a much longer period.

  • 12:26:50

    NNAMDIThis is a storm that's mobilized power utilities up and down the entire coast. To what degree do you find yourself competing, if you will, with those utilities for extra personnel from other parts of the country?

  • 12:27:02

    NELSONCorrect. That is correct. And there is a mutual assistance process that's set up where all the investor-owned utilities, the major utility companies participate, and we go through a process to allocate the available resources into the areas that we, as an industry, feel is going to have the greatest need. And so it's not a case of, you know, who can get the most the fastest. It's really more of a mutual allocation into those areas that are going to be felt to be in the path of the storm most.

  • 12:27:43

    NNAMDIWhat guidance are you giving your employees about how they should respond to outages during the peak severity of the weather? I'm assuming you can't send people out into the worst of the storm and that you'll probably have to wait until it's safe to do so at some point, right?

  • 12:27:58

    NELSONAbsolutely, yes. Once the winds get above 30 miles an hour, particularly under the conditions that we have today and tomorrow with heavy rain, it pretty much becomes impossible to do any effective work out of a bucket truck. Also, we certainly have to consider, you know, employee safety, you know, from fallen trees and blowing debris. So, you know, we will have to make that decision to -- at some point in time, to basically stop our operations from a restoration perspective and just position our employees in a safe place until the wind subsides to a level that they can get back to work.

  • 12:28:47

    NNAMDIHere is Anita in Bethesda, Md. Anita, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:52

    ANITAHi. Thanks for taking my call. I've been hearing on WAMU repeatedly how many resources Dominion Virginia has made available. And I've heard the number 2,000, but I've -- this is the first time I've even heard Pepco referencing any resources. So I'm really curious because, historically, it seems that you don't typically call in additional support until after the storm. And, yes, the models have been out there predicting that this is going to happen well in advance. Specifically, how many resources have you made available? What's the number? How can we know...

  • 12:29:34

    NNAMDIGive us a number, please, George Nelson.

  • 12:29:36

    NELSONOK. There's a couple numbers I'd give you. We have routinely been asking for approximately 3,000 overhead alignment personnel. And we'll continue to ask as they become available from other utility companies. Right now -- and the number I'm going to kind of give you is kind of an aggregate number for kind of all classifications covering all our utility companies.

  • 12:30:07

    NELSONBut, right now, we have a little over 1,300 that's kind of on the property here right now. And we have a number of people that have been committed to us. And we will have a number of people riding into the property over the next several days also.

  • 12:30:26

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about as specific as we have time to get at this point. George Nelson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:30:32

    NELSONOK. Well, thank you very much.

  • 12:30:33

    NNAMDIGeorge Nelson is vice president of operations and engineering for Pepco Holdings, Inc. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, a sex abuse scandal takes the British broadcasting world by storm. We'll talk about the fallout of a brewing controversy at the BBC. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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