A Year Later, Derecho Still Looms Large

In the eight days after June 29, 2012, Montgomery County’s Office of Emergency Management Director Chris Voss slept on an air mattress in his office all but one night.

Nearly a year after last summer’s well-known storm introduced the term “derecho” to the D.C. area and left thousands in Bethesda without power in the middle of a heat wave, Voss looked back on what Montgomery County officials learned and what they’re preparing for in case of a similar storm this summer.

“After every event, we will sit down and we will capture some of the things we might want to do differently,” Voss said. “A lot of things came out of the derecho.”

The storm swept into town on the evening of Friday, June 29, uprooting trees and knocking dangerous limbs onto houses with hurricane-force winds. It left as many as 443,000 Pepco customers without power, some for as long as a week. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties were put on a mandatory water restriction by WSSC and the AT&T National’s third round of play at Congressional Country Club was closed off to fans with so much debris.

It brought up “dozens of issues,” for Voss’ department, some fixable in the near-term, some indicative of longer term problems that require changes from more than one government agency or utility.

WSSC’s Potomac Water Filtration Plant near River Road lost power for 11 hours after the storm and had no reliable back-up power source. It serves much of Montgomery County.

The county’s waste transfer facility in Rockville saw long lines and long waits for people looking to get rid of tree debris. Voss said the county is looking at prepping a secondary debris drop-off location.

His department has also taken a look at a list of facilities — mostly medical facilities, nursing homes and assisted living centers — that may need priority when it comes to Pepco’s power restoration process. In the days after the derecho, the county continually checked in with the facilities, which are required to have back-up generators per the licensing process, to make sure those back-up power sources were working.

But one such facility was without power for a week after its back-up power source failed.

There are thousands of facilities on the list, Voss said, and his staff has been meeting with representatives from the facilities to explain Pepco’s restoration process.

“I think we all wish that Pepco would have restored power quicker,” Voss said. “But what we can do is look at our own operation plan.”

Pepco, which already had an unfavorable reputation, took the brunt of the public’s criticism after the storm.

An investigation by the state’s Public Service Commission found the utility operated with unacceptably low reliability for years, prompting a five-year reliability improvement plan in 2010. The derecho and its aftermath only furthered calls for major reforms to Pepco’s infrastructure.

In the year since the derecho, councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase) has pursued a new type of power grid called “Utility 2.0,” that would include micro-grids with power produced locally. In October, he held a Council Committee hearing with utility experts from across the nation.

Voss said one lasting consequence of the derecho was the county’s Alert Montgomery text message system. In one year, the list of people signed up for Alert Montgomery has increased by 30 percent.

The county has also had to consider what to do with important government functions if the power is out for a prolonged period of time. It’s looking at secondary locations for county departments that provide the space and facilities required.

All of it came out of an eight-day post-derecho period when Voss spent the vast majority of his time playing middleman between Pepco, WSSC, medical facilities and county government. He said he recognizes he didn’t have it that bad because he did have air conditioning.

“The derecho was unique,” Voss said. “I have these long lists of dozens of things. These things aren’t forgotten. I want to make sure if we had a derecho this summer, that’d we do better.”

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