Ice storm aftermath: the good, the bad and the unacceptable

Chester County Emergency Services stands out for praise, PECO gets hit on many fronts

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoFor most of us, the worst is over. As of Monday morning, just about 10,000 Chester County homes and businesses were still without power, according to PECO, down from about 200,000 Wednesday — while others wait for restoration of phone and Internet service from Verizon and Comcast.

Schools across the county have reopened, roads are now largely cleared, with a few still remaining to be reopened. Even yesterday’s light snow was more a nuisance – even considering the shortage of road salt in the area — than much of anything else.

For the vast majority of us — and if you’re still in the dark and cold, we clearly feel for you — things have largely returned to normal this Monday morning. If you still don’t have power, make sure you call 211 for updates and call 800-841-4141 to let PECO know, as it appears the company has had some issues with knowing exactly where it still has outage issues. If you don’t have power — as temperatures could drop in the single digits tonight, please go to a shelter tonight, as county officials are asking. You life and those of your loved ones could depend on it.

As is normal, as we move on from the recovery efforts, it is important to look at what went right and what did not.

Let’s start with the plusses, first.

In terms of Chester County, I think we have to give a big thumbs up to the Department Emergency Services, which did a phenomenal job of communicating information to residents via social media — if you had a smart phone and “liked” them on Facebook, you were kept in the loop, knew what to do, where to go and what to watch out for. Similarly, the department reached out to us in the local media to offer additional information on a wide variety of storm-safety topics from safe generator use to food safety. It was a textbook example of strong public communications and deserves strong praise.

More importantly, DES was warning as early as Monday that the scope and nature of the storm could potentially be a major headache — and rightly pointed out the potential for more than a 1/2 inch of ice to coat trees and down powerlines. Those who failed to heed the warnings were much less ready for what happened.

Information seemed to flow well between school districts, municipalities and county DES, so decision makers at all levels had the best information possible. This is no small matter and no easy task, so those involved deserve kudos.

Next, thanks have to go out to thousands of power workers who came to the area — and those normally here — who worked in some of the worst possible conditions and at times in chaos. Often, they also had to take the brunt of anger from cold, angry folks who wanted to know when their power would be back on, and handled all of this with a bit of humor and determination to get the job done. And contrary to rumors, there were no issues from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union about non-union linemen from out of the area coming in to get the job done. Everyone worked together to get the job done.

The same goes for municipal workers, police and fire (and many of the latter are unpaid volunteers) who worked ridiculous hours to keep us all safe, clear roads, and help efforts to turn the power back on. We may kick about taxes and the cost of our public employees — but this past week’s effort, above and beyond the call of duty in countless instances — reminds us of their value to our lives and community.

For the most part — and with a few exceptions — the ice storm brought out the best in Chester County’s residents. In our travels around the county at the height of the mess, we saw folks helping one another, sharing, working together — opening their homes to neighbors and friends,   and largely with a good sense of humor throughout. There were gripes — many deserved — as the outage dragged on, but most folks found a way through the crisis with a positive, upbeat approach.

So, there are positives we can take from this.

On the other side of the ledger, there was one profound negative: PECO.

Since PECO was taken over by Chicago-based Exelon some years back, the company has struggled to maintain its previous levels of service and reliability, and this past week’s performance highlights many of those issues.

In short form, here are some of PECO’s failures:

In general, the company has cut back on tree and limb trimming over the last decade, leading to more frequent outages. The publicly-held company has sought to contain expenses, reduced staff and limited trimming operations. After storms over the last few years — and the resulting multi-day outages (at least four in the last five years in our neck of the woods) — the company has increased its efforts over the last couple of years, but appears to have failed to catch up to an adequate level.

To be clear: this was a damaging ice storm and would have caused a lot of havoc and power outages even if PECO had been up to snuff on trimming. But at this time of year, the difference between being out for 48 hours and being out for a week is beyond measure.

And although there were ample warnings that the area faced a strong likelihood of a damaging ice storm as noted above, the company was slow to move assets into the area and based on their own information, appear not to have pre-positioned much in the way of out of area crew or equipment prior to the storm. It took a full day for PECO to begin staffing up — Thursday — and Friday before the full number of some 6,000 workers were on the job fixing lines and downed poles.

The company seemed to also have a great deal of trouble coordinating repair efforts. We got numerous reports of the wrong crews responding to scenes — line repair teams sent out when tree limbs were still on downed lines — tree crews sent to scenes where line repairs were needed and so on. Some of these errors kept residents in the dark and cold for an extra day or more.

Talking to a wide range of local officials, the one thing virtually all seem to agree on is that PECO did a poor job of communicating. Throughout the process, local officials on and off the record expressed frustration at getting answers from the company and what was happening.

And if local officials were frustrated, local residents were apoplectic by the company’s inability to consistently communicate the status of their individual outage. This was no small issue — with the cold temperatures, it became difficult to gauge whether folks needed to leave their homes or if they could wait it out. Although we received reports of many, many examples of this, I can speak to it personally:

At my home, from the time our power went off at about 3:40 a.m. on Wednesday, we had about 12 different estimates — including one that informed us our power was back on, when it clearly was not — they kept shifting back and forth, changing in 24-hour intervals, making it impossible to even guess when power might be restored. It was restored Friday night at 7:40 p.m.

I chronicled this on my own Facebook page — and yes, we have a generator (we have become resigned, sadly, to the fact that we now have third-world quality electric service), which left us in much better shape than most — and because of my work, I had a much better sense of how things were going. I can only imagine the frustration of folks, sitting in the dark, trying to keep charge in their smartphones, not knowing what they needed to do to keep loved ones warm and safe.

This needs to change.

Were PECO just a private company, I’m pretty sure most of us would flock to their competitors, in search of better service. That’s the beauty of the free market — it does tend to self-correct.

The problem here is that PECO is a government-regulated monopoly and we have no other options for power delivery. And it doesn’t seem like there’s been a lot of regulating going on of late. I’m sure Rob Powelson, the chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission — and a Kennett Square resident — had that fact hit home as he sat in the dark last week, and maybe had to live with the scorn of his friends and neighbors.

And while our county officials have rightly begun to question PECO’s conduct, they have no regulatory authority to do anything. That isn’t the same for our local state legislators. They need to start asking questions and conduct investigations about the company’s conduct — and if found lacking, demand changes.

If that doesn’t happen in the coming weeks, when it comes to your local State Representative and State Senator, you need to be asking them why. If you put the pressure on them, they’ll demand the answers you want.

This time we got lucky in Chester County. No one died and there few only small number of storm-related injuries and illnesses reported. We can’t continue to depend on good fortune to carry us. It is time to demand action.

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  1. Jayne Shea says:

    Thank you for this article…you said it perfectly!

    We were out from early am Weds morning until 5:30pm Sunday. We are caregivers, which takes power outages to a whole different level. Also victims of PECO’s status updates, we were having a hard time knowing when it would become more beneficial to take our show on the road vs. hanging tight. Our home is set up to accomodate our caregiving needs and heading out was not an easy consideration.

    I am convinced our power was restored on Sunday because my husband, on his twice daily trek to Landhope for gas for the generator, happened upon a PECO foreman. He apologized first, but took the opportunity to ask how long we could expect to be out. The foreman was told everyone would be back on line by late Tuesday. Finally, we knew what we were up against! The foreman quizzed my husband as to our location and was interested in hearing about three places around us with lines down. Within two hours a caravan of trucks from IL and NY were spotted on Rte 162, and within two more hours we had power. Coincidence? Dunno….but we are grateful to have power two days earlier than expected.
    Next time….our entire family will be taking shifts at Landhope in search of the PECO foreman!

  2. Laz says:

    In a 3rd world situation, there would be no trees or power lines…

    Exelon in KSQ didn’t get power until Friday either, or so I was told.

    Estimates are crazy difficult, as who knows how complicated each situation is going to be? However, coordinating tree crews with wire teams shouldn’t be that difficult.

    The lack of markings on the two trees down on Rt 52 southbound between Rosedale and Birmingham was inexcusable. The fact that there were no accidents (I think) is pure good luck, as I spoke to several people who ended up swerving at the last moment. I took their advise as wisdom and drive carefully through there.

  3. Gina Fioravanti says:

    PECOs power outage system online needs a complete overhaul. We were in a similar situation with the power going out around 3:40 am on Wed and coming back on around 7:00 Friday night. I checked the PECO website frequently and every time received different estimates for when it would be back on and different numbers of how many houses were without power each time. The last and most frustrating message said we can’t give you an estimate when your power will be back on. I appreciate the efforts of the linemen and all the crews who took care of us during the storm and I also would recommend that PECO look into a better system for updating customers during outages.

  4. L. Wylie says:

    Boo to AT&T Wireless, whose voice and data service went down for most of Wednesday, as usual for them during any big storm. Much as I hate Verizon, my neighbor’s Verizon smartphone never lost data or voice service.

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