Government in storm mode
Closings of government buildings due to storms and natural disasters typically result in deadline extensions for individuals who have pending business with officialdom. This is the case with Superstorm Sandy.
In the most pressing case, the deadline for county election offices to receive completed civilian absentee ballots has been extended to 5 p.m. Monday - just hours before the polls open - in any county where county offices were closed last week. Voters can mail absentee ballots or deliver them in person.
The Transportation Department gave extensions for renewals of driver licenses, vehicle inspections and registrations and identification cards.
For vehicle registration and safety inspection stickers expiring Oct. 31, the new deadline is Nov. 15. For driver license and registration cards expiring between Oct. 26 and Nov. 15, the new deadline is Nov. 15.
The ability of electric utilities to respond to natural disasters, keep customers informed and promptly restore mass power outages in a reasonable time frame has been an issue since the one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in the late summer of 2011.
Electric utilities were on the receiving end of customer complaints after those disasters about a lack of communication and up to a 10-day lag time in restoring services in some rural areas of Northeast Pennsylvania.
During Gov. Tom Corbett's briefings at the height of Superstorm Sandy, Public Utility Commission Chairman Robert Powelson played a prominent role and stressed how utilities had applied lessons learned from the year before.
He said PPL and other utilities made robo calls to warn customers them of the potential for power outages and used social media such as Twitter and Facebook to reach customers without power.
These issues were examined at a legislative hearing last year chaired by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Township, who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.
"Utilities did unprecedented outreach to customers, with warning calls to customers before the storm, calls on estimated restoration times, and updates on company websites. They also kept elected officials and EMA coordinators informed with conference calls and email updates," said Baker. "These issues were identified as a result of our hearing last year, so it was encouraging to see them put into action."
With Sandy now in recovery phase, the PUC plans to proceed with a long-scheduled public forum Thursday on the ability of natural gas companies to keep customers supplied with natural gas and propane during the winter months.
The Winter Reliability Assessment Forum will focus on supply and price issues and the law governing utility shutoffs for non-payment. Representatives from the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, UGI Utilities, UGI Energy Services Inc., PECO Energy Co., Spectra Energy Transmission LLC and NiSource Gas Transmission have been invited to speak.
Natural gas outages were minimal during Sandy, said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)