Utilities Rush to Prevent Blackouts

Electric utilities along the Atlantic are bracing for blackouts from Hurricane Isabel (search), gathering work crews and checking everything from line poles to rain gear for what could be a major job of restoring power.

Hundreds of tree trimmers and linemen were coming into the Central Atlantic region to help recovery efforts, some from as far away as Wisconsin and Louisiana.

"We are expecting widespread and lengthy outages," said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power (search).

Dominion's power lines stretch across the heart of where Isabel's landfall was expected Thursday along the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in the heavily populated Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

Power utilities from South Carolina to New Jersey already were on alert Tuesday. High winds and flooding from heavy rains were sure to play havoc with power distribution lines and transformers.

Helpers were on the way from states including Wisconsin, Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Massachusetts under a cooperative agreement that utilities have to deal with storms.

"We all work together to share our resources," said Bob Dobkin, a spokesman for the Potomac Electric Power Co. (search), which serves Washington and its Maryland suburbs. He said 600 workers were en route from other parts of the country. If PEPCO were spared and didn't need them all, Dobkin said, some would be diverted to other trouble spots.

Utility representatives said power might take longer to restore in some areas because work crews would not be able to get into areas most heavily damaged until the storm had subsided and the hardest hit areas were safe.

Storm-inflicted power outages are different from the power blackout (search) that darkened parts or most of eight states from Michigan to New York City last month. In that case, large areas went dark because high-voltage lines separated from the grid, and power stations were tripped automatically as designed for safety. With equipment protected, power was restored fairly quickly in many cases.

That probably will not be the case when Isabel hits.

Hurricane Floyd (search) struck the North Carolina coast on Sept. 16, 1999, it left thousands of people without power for as long as 10 days. This time, "It could be similar if not worse," said Norvelle.

On a barrier island of the North Carolina coast, Travis Davis, manager of the Harkers Island electric cooperative, the smallest cooperative in the state, is awaiting Isabel with confidence.

"We'll have some damage, but I think we can handle it," said Davis, 52, in a telephone interview. "We've been through hurricanes before." Still, he's checking his inventory of power poles in case some are toppled by the wind.

Four years ago, when two hurricanes -- Floyd followed in the same month by Dennis -- pummeled Harkers, power was out three days, Davis said. Even so, most of his 1,500 customers are expected to stay on the island for Isabel, he said.

"We're going to try to handle it ourselves," he said, noting that the island has never been flooded. Another thing: "A lot of the people have portable generators, too."

Last month, Progress Energy of Carolina held a "hurricane media day" to get out the word that the storm season was coming and to familiarize people on how to prepare.

Now "we're in the process of mobilizing 850 people" to respond to the real thing, said Progress Energy spokesman Garrick Francis in Raleigh, N.C. He said crews are being dispersed to strategic areas expected to be hit hardest.

The biggest problem, Francis said, will be the winds that topple trees onto power lines and the power poles themselves.

In many areas, months of rainy weather has left the ground saturated, making trees more susceptible to being felled by high winds and increasing the likelihood of flooding, utility officials said. The expected deluge of rain and flooding could disrupt underground lines as well and keep crews from getting to downed lines.

"You've got to wait until the winds die down. That means it could take longer to get crews into the field," said Francis.

Many of the utilities preparing for Isabel have seen hurricanes and other damaging storms before.

"We drill twice a year for these kinds of events," said Bill Yingling, a spokesman for Conectiv, a utility that serves 1 million customers along a coastal strip from northern Virginia to New Jersey including Maryland's Eastern Shore.

"We just went through the ice storm in December, the worst in our history that left some people without power for more than a week," said Francis, the Progress Energy official in North Carolina.