Calif Public Utilities Commission probes outages

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The state Public Utilities Commission said Wednesday it was investigating the mass power outages in Southern California following last week’s windstorm.

Paul Clanon, the agency’s executive director, said it would look into the cause of the outages, staffing levels and the length of time Southern California Edison has taken to respond to safety related calls from its customers.

The agency expects to issue a preliminary report in January.

“We will determine whether SCE met all safety requirements and did all it could to prevent outages, and that it is now doing all it can to restore power and communicate with its customers,” Clanon said. “If we determine that SCE has violated safety rules, it may face fines and penalties.”

Officials with the utility didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on the investigation.

Some 1,500 Southern California Edison customers remained without service Wednesday, a week after the Nov. 30 storm that brought winds approaching 100 mph. The number of outages was down from a high of more than 430,000 outages immediately after the storm. Not all of those outages involved SCE customers.

With workers still struggling to restore power, critics questioned whether local utilities are prepared for more serious disasters such as earthquakes.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who represents one of the areas hardest hit by the recent windstorm, also said he wants to convene a panel to assess how the aftermath of the disaster was handled. And a day earlier, Los Angeles County supervisors sharply criticized Southern California Edison’s response to the windstorm

“My primary concern is if it takes this long to respond to a major windstorm what will take place if we have a calamity like a major earthquake?” Schiff said. “It tells me we have a long way to go in our emergency preparedness.”

California Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Canada Flintridge, who asked Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency, said he “wholeheartedly supports any investigation.”

“If a windstorm can wreak this much havoc and have such a lasting impact I want to be prepared for the next big disaster and I think this windstorm showed us we’re not prepared,” he said.

The outages, caused mostly when downed trees hit power lines, were centered in the San Gabriel Valley northeast of Los Angeles. The tangled lines made it especially slow going for the estimated 276 restoration crews and 1,000 support crews that came from other parts of the state to help restore power.

Edison spokesman Steve Conroy said all the main power lines were repaired by midday Wednesday. Workers then went from home to home, repairing secondary lines that connect individual customers to power polls, he said.

Edison is doing “everything we can to get those lights on to those customers,” he said.

Conroy offered no timetable for when power might be fully restored but said when the work was done the utility would take a comprehensive look at how it handled the situation.

“Every time we go through an event like this, we go through and take a hard look at what we did and lessons learned,” he said, adding communication with customers will be one area of focus.

On Tuesday, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich slammed Edison for its response to the windstorm.

He was particularly critical of Edison spokeswoman Veronica Gutierrez’s explanation that the company was relying on media to get the word out about the status of repairs when hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity and had no access to radio, TV or the Internet.

“You really need direct contact with those neighbors. The media only works if you have electricity. They need to turn on the television. So that’s stupid,” Antonovich said.

People have become increasingly angry as the outrages wore on and overnight temperatures fell into the freezing range.

Frustration may have reached its limit for a 72-year-old man who police said was arrested Tuesday after he made death threats against Pasadena city workers over restoration of his power.

Geoffrey Commons was arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats and released after posting $50,000 bond, Pasadena police Lt. Pete Hettema said. Commons did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter asking the state Public Utilities Commission to require utilities to prepare an emergency communications plan.

As crews continued to make repairs, nighttime temperatures hovered just above freezing in many areas, but winds have died down.

A preliminary estimate put damage and cleanup costs from last week’s winds at $3.8 million in areas serviced by the county Department of Public Works. Department spokesman Bob Spencer said it could take weeks to clean up all the mess left by the winds.

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