Kojo interviews WHUR's former general manager on how his technical experience informed his leadership, and how he turned one station into a network of six.
A “thundersnow” storm knocked out power and clogged up roads throughout the Washington region on Wednesday. We chat with local officials about what’s being done to restore power and clear up roadways, and hear about your experiences during the storm.
- Rodney Blevins Vice President, Distribution Operations, Virginia Dominion Power
- Charles Dickerson Vice President, Customer Care, Pepco
- Terry Bellamy Interim Director, D.C. Department of Transportation
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, the future of Montgomery College and of community college educations in today's economic universe, but first, thundersnow is the new snowpocalypse. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Washington region are without power today, and hordes of commuters spent hours on the roads last night navigating a dangerous mix of ice, slush and snow. This hour, we'll be getting updates from local officials about our power grid and our roads and taking your calls -- it's also your turn -- at 800-433-8850, if you'd like to speak with those officials. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to email@example.com about how last night's blast of thundersnow is affecting your life. Joining us now by telephone from Richmond is Rodney Blevins, vice president of distribution operations for Virginia Dominion Power. Rodney Blevins, thank you for joining us.
MR. RODNEY BLEVINSThank you. Afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone is Charles Dickerson, vice president of customer care at Pepco. Charles Dickerson, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHARLES DICKERSONThank you for having me, Sir.
NNAMDIRodney, let's start with you. By some counts, there are more than 400,000 people without power in the Washington region this morning, including yours truly, Charles. What can you tell us about the depth of the outages in your jurisdiction, and what's your short-term strategy for restoring power to your customers? First you, Rodney Blevins.
BLEVINSSure. Of those you spoke of, 92,000 of them are ours that are still without service, and we are working hard to correct that, to get that number to zero. So far since the storm began, we've restored almost exactly a hundred thousand customers, so we're making progress. The key activity today has been about damage assessment. If you think about what happened yesterday evening and the timing of it and overnight, this morning was really the first time we got a chance to look at our facilities. We are closing in on completing our damage assessment where we'll be able to provide more insight in terms to the length of this restoration effort.
NNAMDICharles Dickerson, Pepco took a lot of criticism after snowpocalypse last year, and there's been a lot of talk in a variety of jurisdictions about trying to impose some form of penalty on Pepco if it does not perform better this time. What's your short-term strategy for restoring power, and what were the major problems you saw last night?
DICKERSONWell, just as your other guest, I wanna tell about 172,000 of those customers are ours, and they're spread out across our three jurisdictions of Washington D.C., Prince George's and Montgomery County. Our strategy is similar to other utilities. Last night, we had to do a lot of assessment. Obviously, with the conditions beginning last night, it made travel difficult. I'm certain you may know there were a lot of cars stranded on the roads. The conditions were bad. Our trucks have to drive through that. So that the field crews can take a look at what's going on. In terms of our strategies for restoring power, we have nearly a thousand crew members out on the street. We have additional crews coming from our sister utilities out of Delaware. We've enlisted the help of what we call our mutual assistance alliances with other utilities. We have crews come in from Ohio to help us to restore power. We've more than tripled the number of people on the telephones, and while I say that, we still want to encourage our customers to call our automated line because that's the most efficient way...
NNAMDII've called it three or four times already.
DICKERSONThe automated line?
DICKERSONGreat. We appreciate that, and that's the most efficient way for us...
NNAMDIDoes it tell you when people have called on more than one occasion?
NNAMDIDoes the automated line tell you when people have called on more than one occasion when we're working our best to harass you?
DICKERSON(laugh) Well, if we've done anything to restore your power and you call in a new outage, we'll know that, but if you call in a repeat outage, it will let you know that we've already logged your outage at that location, and we may not know that you called more than once. It depends on where you're calling from.
NNAMDII'll have to find another method of harassment. At this point this morning, what would you say are the most challenging elements to getting power restored. First you, Rodney Blevins.
BLEVINSObviously, the travel conditions are the most challenging conditions. I would say our damage is moderate. It's -- we don't have catastrophic damage. If we can get there, we have -- probably the best way to give you a visual representation of it, we have 300 bucket trucks working in the Northern Virginia area right now. If we can get there and get our crews to the site, they've demonstrated over many events that they can get the lights on quickly. So that's what we’re trying to do now is making sure we can do that safely.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for either our guest from Pepco or our guest from Virginia Dominion Power, call us at 800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Charles Dickerson, what are the more challenging elements you're running into? This morning, the sun is out. The streets are clear.
DICKERSONWell, the streets are being cleared, but there are side streets that aren't necessarily fully cleared yet. Our other concern is that there are patches of ice. I came to work around 4:30 this morning. There are areas and stretches of main roads that are clear, but then, you can obviously hit a patch of ice that a plow may have missed or something else may have happened. So we're concerned that when people say things like the streets are clear, people may start getting back on the roads, and they may frustrate the attempts of our trucks to get to locations.
NNAMDII guess, I should say the major streets are clear. At least in Washington D.C., there are a lot of side streets that have not been cleared.
DICKERSONThank you, Kojo, for making that clarification. And of the 172,000, I'm certain that you and your audience will appreciate that many of those people on side streets, most of the customers don't live on major streets, and so we still have to get to the side streets to make an assessment. Our concern is cleaning trees. As you may be aware, people may have seen for themselves the snowfall was fast. It was wet, and it was extremely heavy. A lot of trees are bent over where they're gonna impact power lines, and that's gonna cause outages. So our concern is removing that. I'm also concerned about temperatures dropping over the course of the night and causing road conditions to freeze up, which may present some more challenges for people traveling.
NNAMDIRodney Blevins, how does a storm like the one we had last night affect your physical infrastructure? What were your teams working against? You seem to imply or say that you don't seem to have much damage to your physical infrastructure.
BLEVINSWell, believe me, we have the lights out, and we're well aware of that, but compared to maybe the previous storms, you know, each storm has different challenges. For instance, if I compare this to the big snowstorms last year, this snow was wet and heavy versus deep and dry, and they all have their different challenges. So, for instance, what we're finding is as we get to the repair locations and we're still sitting on 1,250 repair locations we have to go to, instead of finding ourselves at every repair location having to replace four poles and crossarms and all that, we're finding ourselves not having to do that much work. And that's a good thing because that will aid us in terms of applying the resources that we have to be able to get more customers' lights on more quickly. It's a good sign that when we can make -- continue to make the progress that we've already made with the hundred thousand we've already restored.
NNAMDICharles Dickerson, any indications that your physical infrastructure has been adversely affected?
DICKERSONYeah. We do have a number of reported wires down, and obviously, as Rodney said and I said it prior as well, the heavy snow is gonna impact the trees, and it's gonna pull the wires down. At this point right now, I do not have a count of snapped polls, which is always a good thing because it takes a lot of time to remove a snapped poll and put another poll in its place. So right now, we're looking at restringing wires that may have been pulled down, and freeing up what we call feeder lockouts, which is part of the protective system that the feeder will lock out if it's experiencing what we call faults that is beyond its capacity to handle it. So we're working on getting those things restored, and we feel comfortable that we’re gonna be able to get these customers back in a reasonable amount of time.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by reasonable amount of time?
DICKERSONWell, we're gonna make that assessment on a case-by-case basis. We don't think, hopefully, that this is not gonna as protracted as snowmageddon, but we're gonna put out every effort into getting these customers back as safely and quickly as we possibly can.
NNAMDIHere is Jonathan in Oxon Hill, Maryland, with a question. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHANOh, yes. Thanks for putting me on, Kojo. I just want to know why you need -- either of you have not taken the steps to bury the power lines. I'm from the north, and that's what they do. They bury the lines, and it prevents this and also prevents trees from falling on the lines like that. You know, in my hometown we get outages...
NNAMDIJonathan, Jonathan, you should know that every time we have had this discussion, we have talked specifically about the issue of burying power lines, and every time it's come up, it has to do with cost, does it not, Charles Dickerson?
DICKERSONWell, I don't think cost is the total issue. There are other considerations. Cost is definitely a significant issue. It costs a lot of money to bury power lines. But the other issue with burying power lines is that when you do have a fault on a power line that's buried, it's usually gonna take longer for that customer or the customers associated with that line will be restored because now the utility has to locate the line, locate where the fault is. They're gonna have to dig it up, find it and make the repairs. So while in general, the frequency of on-the-ground lines may appear to be less, we know specifically the duration typically can be a lot longer because of the complexities of finding the buried cables.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jonathan. Here is Maureen in Arlington, Virginia. Maureen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAUREENGood morning. I'm in Arlington, and we've been without electricity since last night around nine. Two or three, what's the...
NNAMDIOh, you're breaking up on me, Maureen. Are you on a cell phone, and can you stay in the same place for a minute or two? I think we have lost Maureen. And, Rodney Blevins, there's an indication that what Maureen wanted to ask about was if they have to worry about freezing pipes in this situation, and what should they do since their power is out?
BLEVINSAbsolutely. That's -- as we've discussed earlier, the concern over low temperatures is absolutely a concern. You know, in terms of freezing pipes, one thing I would encourage everybody that's listening to this whether their lights are out or not, is having an emergency plan in your home in advance of these types of events so that you can plan for these types of things. Obviously, there are probably external parties that can help customers with that type of thing, but it's probably more important to be thinking about, as you listen to this, to make sure that you have an emergency plan for a long duration outage in such a way that you can have these plans in front of you.
NNAMDIWhat advice do you have for customers who are without power right now, Charles Dickerson, and who should not expect for their power to be restored in the short run, maybe a day or two?
DICKERSONWell, again, like Rodney said, we would hope that customers would have emergency plans. You know, that became a really big issue in our country post-9/11. We know that the government agencies have been doing a good job in running commercials around emergency plans, and I think most all utilities do. We would encourage customers in the short term to leave their refrigerators closed because to the extent that you leave it closed it will maintain the temperatures of your food. And actually to be honest, that you -- in a storm such as , when it's in the winter time, you may even want to put your food in the garage or some place outside if you think it isn't in danger of being damaged because of not being kept at the proper temperature. Customers should have heat. They should try to get the right amount of water to last a few days. Standard things, customers should try to keep extra medicine, an emergency kit and maybe try to find somebody else with whom they could stay. We know that there are warming centers that have been opened up in various areas of the region, and we would suggest to customers to do things such as that.
NNAMDIHere is Maureen again in Arlington. Maureen, you got cut off the last time. State your own case this time.
MAUREENThank you. I think it's Verizon, but should I leave all my faucets dripping a little bit to keep them from freezing, and is there an inexpensive system that I can keep my gas heater going next time, my gas furnace? Because when the electrical goes out, the thing that gets it started went out.
NNAMDIHere's Rodney Blevins.
BLEVINSSure. Regarding the latter question, certainly, a number of customers, depending upon your, you know, your personal preference, can invest in a generator that can not only run the fan on your gas heat but also run other things in your home like your refrigerator. But that is more of a personal preference. The only thing I would say is if you do go that generator route, make sure you have it connected by a professional in such a way that it will protect you and also the folks that work on the lines and prevent that electricity from going back on the lines where the trouble is.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. Rodney Blevins, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIRodney Blevins is vice president of distribution operations for Virginia Dominion Power. Charles Dickerson, thank you for joining us. If I stay at a hotel tonight, I'll be sending you my bill.
NNAMDICharles Dickerson is vice president of customer care at Pepco. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking more about the roads and taking your calls. It's your turn, so stay on the line. We'll be talking with the interim director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's your turn. We're taking your calls on how yesterday's snow storm may have affected you and if you have comments for our guests. We got this comment on our website from Robert. This is a copy of a letter he sent to Pepco this morning. "In 2010, my 90-year-old mother was without power for 9.5 days. Once again, on the 27th of January 2011, power is out, and your website with outage information has no useful information. Everything is quote, unquote, 'pending.' I know better than to waste time on the phone calling for information. I have tried that before. The biggest obstacle for an older person aging in place in Montgomery County is Pepco." Obviously, Robert is very upset about what is happening with his mother and, well, he should be. Joining us now by telephone is John Lisle, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Transportation. John Lisle, thank you so much for joining us. I can't hear -- John Lisle, are you there?
MR. JOHN LISLEYes, I'm here, Kojo. Sorry. The phone was -- I'm on a cell phone, and it was cutting in and out. So I apologize...
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you so much for joining us. About a week or so ago, there was a small snowstorm predicted for the District of Columbia, and one could see trucks spreading salt on the streets well before the snow storm occurred. That didn't happen yesterday, at least not from what we could see. Why not?
LISLEI'm sorry. What didn't happen? Kojo, I'm sorry. I missed that part.
NNAMDIThere seemed to be no salt being spread on the streets before the snowstorm came yesterday, and that apparently has been the practice in the past, as recently as about a week ago. Why did you not do that yesterday? Or am I incorrect?
LISLEIf anything, Kojo (unintelligible) putting too much salt and (unintelligible) we did have crews out yesterday. Actually about 200 plows were out on the streets at about -- by three o'clock yesterday afternoon. So they were out before the storm. I'd say the big factor was that, as you know, until four o'clock, it was raining. And we had pretreated the roads, and we were putting down salt. But really, our efforts were probably -- or the salt that we put down on the pre-treating was diluted by the fact that it rained, and it rained pretty hard in the District before. All of a sudden, sleet started coming down, and then it started to snow. So we didn't have an opportunity to put down a lot of salt when there was not precipitation coming down.
NNAMDIIt's also my understanding that the city did not call for a snow emergency. Why was that and what's the process you use to determine whether or not declaring an emergency is necessary?
LISLEWell, I think -- hopefully I can clear of some confusion about what declaring a snow emergency means, and that's a decision that's made by the mayor. But a snow emergency is declared for -- the primary reason for it would be to clear the snow emergency routes, to get vehicles off of those routes so that nobody is parking on a snow emergency route. And that would have permitted us to plow from curb to curb on those routes. And I think what -- usually, we don't like to do it too early or we don't like to do it if we don't have to because then residents have to find parking, and that can be very challenging. So we try not to do it unless it's absolutely necessary, and it's usually not done unless we have six or more inches of snow. And I -- and so, it's not -- a snow emergency doesn't mean we're going to treat the storm any more seriously than any other storm. It just impacts our snow emergency routes.
NNAMDIWhat are your immediate priorities right now?
LISLEWell, right now, you know, the streets look very good. We still have all of our trucks out. We've -- we had a shift change early this morning, and those crews are still out on the streets. They're working in the residential neighborhoods, putting salt down. So I'd say that's our priority now in any remaining spots on the main roads that haven't been done. But most of...
NNAMDIIs there -- John, is there any...
NNAMDIIs there any coordination with Pepco? Because talking to the Pepco spokesperson earlier, he was saying that there are side streets that might still be difficult for Pepco crews to access. Does Pepco coordinate with the city to try to make those streets where people do not have power a priority for clearing?
LISLEWe do. We communicate with Pepco a lot of times. You know, it's a partnership because they need us and we need them. So a lot of times, we need them to come in and de-energize the power lines if there's a tree that has fallen, and then our crews can go in and take the tree out. And then Pepco can restore the power. So we work very closely with them. And Thomas Graham was here at this press conference that the mayor is holding right now in Southeast with his cabinet, and he said that, you know, access was an issue because of the -- everybody was having trouble getting around the city last night and so -- we do work with them, but I think they -- the same issues that the rest of us face with the storm last night.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, the storm seemed to really start laying it on thick during the rush hour yesterday. Your crews, like Pepco crews, were fighting to do their work right as everyone in the city was getting on to the roads. What did you learn from what happened yesterday, and how was that likely to change your strategy the next time around?
LISLEWell, that's a very good question, and I was talking to some reporters here about that before this conference. And I -- from my standpoint, I think if there's something that we learned from a human communication standpoint, it might be that when a storm -- you know, if we're gonna get a storm like that during rush hour, that maybe we need to reinforce the message and make sure that people -- that we do a good job of telling people that they should go home early if they can because what we saw yesterday was that we had folks heading home as they normally do between four and six o'clock in the evening, and that's when the snow really started to come down heavy.
LISLEAnd so it helped that the federal government shut down early. It helped that some of the local school districts shut down early. But maybe we could have done a better job of telling other people that they also should have gone home early. And maybe that would have prevented at least some, if not all. I'm sure it wouldn't have prevented all of the back ups, but it might have helped.
NNAMDIOne option I'd like to suggest. How about, big snow storm coming this afternoon, don't go to work this morning?
LISLEWell, that's -- yeah. But I'm not sure anybody would listen to us.
NNAMDIThis is true.
LISLEBut I think that is a -- you know, that is something that, you know, we could consider. But again, we weren't expecting a foot of snow yesterday in the District. We were expecting four to six inches of snow, and that's manageable. If, you know, if it had fallen over night, that would be extremely manageable. But the fact that it happened during rush hour really led to some big traffic backups and issues for our crews that were trying to treat the road.
NNAMDIJohn Lisle, thank you so much for joining us.
LISLEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohn Lisle is the spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Transportation. It's now your turn, Irvin in Silver Spring, Md. You're on the air. Go ahead please.
IRVINHi, Kojo. How are you?
IRVINGood, good. I spent quite about little time getting home last night. And I have a job where I have to be out on the streets working. But I don't think OPM has learned the lessons from the past in terms of discharging federal workers. I think that there was a lackadaisical effort. I mean, they did enough at 11 o'clock, that they will let people off the tree. But I don't think their approval went through on time. And as a result, when people heard this sort of government was getting off -- other offices spilled out and closed too. So there was no leadership in terms of coordinating people on the road. And, of course, usually it's staggered but yesterday, everybody seemed to be on the road at the same time. It was overcapacity in the roadway. There, I saw people doing some of the most dumbest things I've ever seen since I've been here in Washington. (laugh) I've seen people driving on sidewalks, going down the wrong side of the street. They just lost it.
NNAMDIWell, you obviously haven't been in Washington very long, Irvin.
IRVINI've been here since the '70s. But I have never seen it that way. I really -- people just lost it.
NNAMDIYeah, that's true. I've witnessed a lot of that.
IRVINAnd it was -- it got dangerous the way people were acting.
NNAMDIYes, but I've seen that before also. But, Irvin, thank you for your call. We move on to Anne in Bethesda, Md. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Anne. Are you there?
NNAMDIAnne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEIs this for Anne?
NNAMDIYes, it is for Anne.
ANNEOkay. I'm just calling because I hear so much negative things and I -- last night, I was watching. I was comfortable when I look out of my condo window, and I saw a big flash of light, like a fireball. And I got nervous. And I called up 911 and -- to tell them. And I gave them the direction. The general directions. I didn't give them exact correct directions because I was so -- it happened about four or five times -- just lit up the sky. And so I called 911. They were so nice. The woman took my message and then I thought I'd given an incorrect address. So I called back again, she said, don't worry, we've had four calls. But I thought -- we've heard so much negative and they couldn't have been nicer on 911 when they took my call.
NNAMDIOh, that's a good story.
ANNEYes. I'm giving a positive. It's a little positive input.
NNAMDIIt's certainly a positive story. And that would be really a good way to end this discussion. So, Anne, thank you very much for your call. But we're not gonna end the discussion this way, because we have some tweets from people who are frustrated by the snow response. We got this from Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post. "From @feldmike, 'Mayor Gray's first big test. Not looking good so far. Downtown D.C. is a parking lot. Haven't seen a single plow.' From @katanders, 'I guess the city has decided to wait to send out the snow plows until after this is over. That's different. Mayor Gray?' And this from ABC News reporter, Jake Tapper, to his 86,000 followers. 'Dear Mayor Gray, it's been snowing for hours and I haven't seen one snowplow. You there?' and '@CoryBooker, how do we draft you to be mayor of D.C.? How about just during snow storms? Can you call Mayor Gray and offer some tips?' Both of these have been re-tweeted hundreds of times. Fairly or unfairly, never is a big city mayor under such a microscope as doing a major snowfall. Gray has the additional burden of following Adrian Fenty, who made efficient delivery of city services the cornerstone of his administration. And those Fenty voters out there are clearly not giving Mayor Gray the benefit of the doubt."
NNAMDIBut we'll see. Mayor Gray, as it was mentioned earlier, is having a press conference right now. And, of course, everything I just said to you came from the blog of Washington Post reporter Mike DeBonis. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will be talking with the president of Montgomery College about her intention to make it, quoting, "the most relevant community college in the country." We'll ask her what that means. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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