Thursday, October 20, 2011

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Upgraded call centers and increased use of social media could help utility companies better respond to natural disasters like the two destructive storms that recently hit Pennsylvania, executives and state officials told lawmakers.

Utility representatives and state emergency officials testified Tuesday at a joint hearing of two Senate committees about lessons learned from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

The hearing was prompted by constituent complaints to senators about a lack of communication from the utilities and the lag in restoring service in some areas.

About 706,000 Pennsylvanians had no electricity during the peak of the outages caused when Irene barreled through the state on Aug. 28. Some residents went without power for 10 days.

Just over a week later, the state was hit with historic flooding from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

Utility officials stressed how destructive the storms were to transmission lines and distribution systems. But Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the lack of communication with customers left residents "powerless and in the dark," literally and figuratively.

Many irate residents had no idea when their service would be restored in the days after Irene, Baker said. Some saw utility trucks parked in their neighborhoods for hours only to watch them leave — without having restored the power, she said.

Carl Segneri, an executive with Allentown-based utility PPL Corp., said the volume of calls to report damage during Irene exceeded the company's phone system capacity. The problem was compounded by breakdowns in the outage management system, he said.

PPL is evaluating its technology to see how it can improve reliability and performance, Segneri said.

UGI Utilities Inc. plans to acquire better weather forecasting tools and buy a new system to manage power outages, executive Robert Stoyko told lawmakers.

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