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Ranting in the dark



If you were driving through Northgate Park in Durham last Monday evening with your car windows rolled down, you might have heard something profane in the frigid air.

I'm the culprit. You see, we had a teeny, tiny power outage and I got a teeny, tiny bit annoyed. OK, so this time the power was only out for about two hours. But as the lights flickered like Morse code on crack then went dark, we were transported back to that panicky space we'd occupied during December's ice storm.

So as my husband went to find candles and flashlights, and my 5-year-old huddled under blankets in the pitch-dark living room, I went to the back of our small house and drew open the sash. Leaning my head as far out the first-floor window as I could without landing on the lawn, I took a glacial gulp and yelled, "BITE MY BUTT, DUKE POWER!"

Not the most mature response, I admit. But really, don't you think I had a right? The recorded message on the company's phone line said the lights would be on in an hour or maybe two--and they were. All the operator at Duke Power's consumer line would say is that the trouble was "wind-related" and that "a lot of people" lost power that night. I've been trying to keep an open mind about Duke Power. Trying with all my might despite reports of emergency plans that haven't been updated since the Watergate era, material shortages, unreliable communications and poor planning. Not to mention the price increase the company was trying to put over on customers to help pay for the ice storm damage before the governor and other elected officials stepped in and demanded public hearings. After that, Duke Power said it would swallow the estimated $130 million in storm-related costs. (Why was that ever a question?!)

Public hearings the state utilities commission has been holding on the performance of power companies during the ice storm have grown quieter the further away we've gotten from the event (the final one will be in Henderson on Jan. 14). At the one in Raleigh (the second of the six), Emily Will of Wake Forest said, "I don't think it's fair for us to expect that we could have 100 percent, nonstop power no matter what falls out of the sky."

Well, I don't either. But I also don't expect power to be off for more than a week due to sky-falling.

With Durham's franchise agreement with Duke Power set to expire in July, the burden should be on the power company to explain why they deserve monopoly status. I know the city may have limited options. Even if it wanted to provide its own electricity, it seems Durham would have to shell out hundreds of millions for Duke Power's lines and poles. Still, we're the paying customers here, and there are good reasons why our outrage meters are still ticking.

So I say, bring on more hearings! And sign me up for one. There are a few things I forgot to say out the window.

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