Another Perspective

Revenge of the Electric Pole

Maryland's Pepco is forcing darkened customers to jump from the tallest downed tree.

By 9.25.03

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Convict Us
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as a Public Utility's soul,
I curse whatever gods may be
For telling Edison to use a pole.

"String 'em high," these furies said.
"Put your wires as high as trees.
To bury them would wake the dead.
High wires, Tom, are sure to please."

A thousand forests died to string
Tom's brainchild o'er the land.
But living trees no praises sing;
Instead, they play their hand.

With rain and wind the green conspire
To avenge their creosoted brethren.
They fall, and bring Tom's every wire
To earth from their former heaven.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I'm not the master of my fate,
Potomac Power owns my soul.

Drivel, you say? Sure. But no worse than the politicians' promises during more than a week in the wake of Hurricane Isabel. Deregulated power companies in Virginia and Maryland issued mounting estimates of "customer" outages. After a few days the media figured out that "customers" meant meters, each one of which served several human beings, and estimates of powerless victims soared into the millions. The writer is one, seven days without electricity and counting.

Over time, some truths become self-evident. Despite some minor thunderstorms a month ago when Potomac Power and Electric Company, known fondly as Pepco, left some in the dark for as long as six days and promised it wouldn't happen again, Hurricane Isabel found the utility unable to respond. Moreover, the utilities' undying hatred of trees began seeping out of the conversation. Callers to the emergency lines began to realize that if a "tree" was responsible for the complained-of outage, chances were the response would be measured, in days.

The writer lives in a town in Maryland which goes by the unfortunate appositive moniker, "The Town of Trees." A giant boulevard tree fell on the day of Isabel's passing, landing between 3914 and 3916 Washington Street, doing minor damage to the homes involved, but taking down the power lines. Days passed. The town itself hired a tree man to cut up the malefactor and haul it away. The fire department stretched yellow tape across the street and along the path of falling wires. Residents dutifully called in the emergency to Pepco's phone banks. Days passed. What to do? Residents of some 25 houses were for the most part without any form of convenience, not even hot water in which to bath or rinse. Some suggested all victims agree not to bathe, but to speak French instead.

On the fifth day, as generators purchased by some citizens clattered in the background, a Pepco bucket truck and crew arrived, along with the mayor of the town and a woman identifying herself as Pepco Regional Vice President, Maryland. The crew foreman explained his task was restricted to restoring severed wires to the homes attacked by the tree. Neither he nor his crew in the bucket truck could restore the power lines ripped from the nearby pole. The Vice-President, Maryland also professed not to have any idea of where the real restorers were or when they might arrive on this street in the Town of Trees.

Their best advice: call that emergency number at least once a day, every day, as much as to say that each day is a new birth for the utility and the common belief that one or two calls would suffice is misplaced.

So, we call every day. Occasionally, a responder will mention "tree," a sort of prolepsis designed to forewarn the complainant that he has brought it on himself by living near a tree. And environmental wackos and tree huggers are not to expect swift restoration.

The long night of Isabel has served to underline an unremitting tree warfare between electric utilities and the towns and residents they served. Who trims what and how often? Whose is it to remove trees whose time has come?

Down the road lies that larger decision. To bury power lines as is done in emerging nations and for that matter in new American subdivisions. Some may ask why when recently city streets were being dug up far and wide for the placement of fiber optic cable were not the airborne wires above buried with them? As you bounce along the ill-repaired pavement under which the fiber lies you may ask. The answer: expense. Someday the expense must be met. The trees and their allies in nature are winning. The dead poles nés trees soaked in creosote are being avenged.

The pole at 3914 - 3916 from which the wires were stripped was once an American Chestnut.

Au revoir.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.