Storm Surge

Martin O’Malley: Maryland’s Hurricane Hero?

Gov. Martin O’Malley has his ‘boot up the backside’ of the local power company.

Martin O’Malley wasn’t about to mince words.

With his state squarely in the path of Hurricane Sandy, the Maryland governor is determined to ensure that the local utility—with one of the worst track records in the country—does everything it can to keep the lights on.

“We’ve had our boot up the backside of Pepco to bring in mutual aid help from other states,” O’Malley told The Daily Beast on Monday. “When we started tracking this storm, the first calls I made were to Pepco” and to the region’s other utility, Baltimore Gas & Electric. “I said, ‘Get the assets in here from every place you can.’”

The result is that Pepco, which serves D.C. and Maryland, has brought in more than 3,000 emergency personnel from other states.

Pepco is practically a dirty word in the nation’s capital. Its 778,000 customers have experienced 70 percent more outages than those in other big cities. Service has declined markedly over the past seven years, and the company has ranked at or near the bottom of U.S. utilities in terms of reliability. Even modest storms can knock out power to some customers for a week or more.

“We’ve seen a lot of outages in Pepco service areas,” O’Malley says. “One issue was a lack of preventative maintenance, a lack of tree trimming. They’re starting to catch up.”

Local regulators bear some responsibility. “We, as a commission, can fairly be criticized,” Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, told The Washington Post in July. “We didn’t pick up early enough on the need for comprehensive reliability regulations. You can call us on that one.” Last year the regulators hit Pepco with an unprecedented $1 million fine.

For O’Malley, who is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and a likely presidential candidate in 2016, local politics is also national politics. There is a long line of governors and mayors who have seen their stars dim over botched responses to blizzards and hurricanes. Just ask former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco.

O’Malley made a point of praising the Obama administration, saying: “Our federal partners have been terrific.” He also made a broader environmental point that could figure in a future campaign.

“Our electric grid was fine for withstanding the storms of the ’80s,” he said. “It’s not as strong as it needs to be for the violent storms we’re seeing in the age of climate change and rising temperatures.”

As for the destructive power of Sandy, the governor said: “I’ve never seen a storm like this, one that will sit on us and pound us for 24 to 36 hours.”