News & Politics

No AC/DC In D.C.


Any terrorist would take heart at the ludicrous operations of federal and local authorities in cleaning up after Hurricane Isabel. Four days after the storm, sections of D.C. were still without power. As usual in these events, President Bush left town for his Maryland retreat at Camp David.

Because the area has suffered severe summer storms in the past without this sort of damage, there is a growing suspicion that Pepco Holdings, which supplies power to an estimated 720,000 customers in the D.C. area, has altered the makeup of its grid system, making it more susceptible to damage.

Stress on the nation’s electrical grids can be accounted for in part because private companies like Pepco don’t want to spend money maintaining the lines and wouldn’t dream of footing the bill to put lines underground. In the current atmosphere of deregulation, they build bigger and bigger grids, farther and farther from power generators, in order to maximize their returns. The bigger the grid, the harder (and more expensive) it is to maintain.

Technically there just isn’t any reason for the nation’s capital to be without electricity. Pepco hired out-of-state repair personnel and equipment, but this is the headquarters for the Army Corps of Engineers, which has vast experience at building and repairing infrastructure, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, National Guard units can jump in to help with Signal Corps units.

For a graduate project at George Mason University’s National Center for Technology and Law, student Sean Gorman made a map of every business and industrial sector in D.C. with an overlay showing how they were connected in a fiber-optic network. He was told by government officials to shut up about it because of national security. “He should turn it in to his professor, get his grade—and then they both should burn it,” former White House cyberterrorism chief Richard Clarke told The Washington Post. (The Post itself didn’t print the results of Gorman’s research.)

Officials were worried that it might give America’s enemies ideas. But with Pepco’s feeble efforts to keep the power on in D.C., who needs enemies?

Archive Highlights