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Families want repayment from Progress Energy for power damages

The dates are seared in their memory.

For Ron Dorobkowski and his family, it happened on Dec. 22. Cliff and Shirley Boehmer say it was a Memorial Day weekend and that it merited a paragraph in their annual Christmas letter. Joyce and Charles Lakamp's scare was last September. For Joan Riordan, it was a few weeks ago, while eating lunch with her daughter and grandchildren. Riordan's kitchen began filling with smoke.

The Clearwater, Largo and Seminole residents tell similar stories, highlighting electrical problems that inconvenienced, terrified and frustrated them. They say Progress Energy refuses to compensate them for the property they've lost. For the most part, they'd put the incidents behind them, until they read a recent St. Petersburg Times article about similar problems in St. Petersburg's Woodlawn neighborhood.

"I was like, whoa, that's us,'' said Dorobkowski, 51.

"Oh, you poor people,'' Shirley Boehmer thought. "I know exactly what you're going through.''

In all but one case, the residents say Progress Energy employees blamed their electrical problems on a bad neutral line.

A neutral line, explained Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for the utility, is one of three lines to a home,

"Two of those lines are active (live) electric lines and a third is a neutral line. Sometimes the neutral portion of it can fail and a symptom of that is that you might see your lights dim or you might see your lights get bright,'' Jacobs said.

Cliff Boehmer, 87, can testify to that.

"It was about maybe 6 o'clock or 6:30 in the morning. All of the sudden all of the lights in the house went on real bright and we heard a bang. It scared us half to death,'' he said.

In their 2006 Christmas letter, his wife wrote that their touch lamps kept flashing on and off and "all the night lights glowed the brightest I had ever seen them.''

The Lakamps had a similar account of what occurred at their rented Largo home about a year ago.

"The lights in the dining room went dim and came back on. Then it looked like the sun was in our house and then pop and then nothing and it had even broken some lights in the chandelier right above our heads. Then we started smelling something,'' Joyce Lakamp, 61, said.

Most of the damage, about $3,000 worth, was in their Florida room.

"It could have started a fire,'' said her 60-year-old husband, a former route salesman for Wonder Bread.

"It's a good thing I didn't have my train collection plugged in, because I would have lost it too.''

Jacobs said it's difficult to say what causes neutral lines to go bad.

"Sometimes it's just age of the equipment,'' she said.

Progress Energy says the number of claims the company gets per year related to "power quality issues" is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of all customers served.

Compensation for damaged or lost property isn't automatic.

"There is a threshold that has to be met. And basically, if equipment fails, we generally are not responsible for that. If something happens because of Progress Energy's gross negligence, then we would be responsible. It isn't that a transformer failed,'' Jacobs said.

In an e-mail, Jacobs said gross negligence occurs if Progress Energy is reckless or its employees intentionally and willfully cause damage. She said the company uses a threshold for negligence on a case-by-case basis.

"If we find that Progress Energy is at fault and caused the damage, we generally pay those claims,'' she said.

Dorobkowski thought he would have been compensated for the $10,000 in damage at his home. He said when Progress Energy employees showed up, they took the blame for what happened.

"They come to the conclusion it was entirely their fault and that they had a bad neutral line,'' he said.

"The guy said, 'Things like that happen sometimes and we would take care of everything.' ''

Dorobkowski said he was told not to get rid of anything, so he moved his family into a 39-foot travel trailer on the property, because their refrigerator and stove had been ruined.

Cliff Boehmer said he became frustrated trying get compensation for $6,000 worth of damage to appliances and electronic equipment.

"We got all these estimates, running all over town and then we called them up and then the hassles started. We give them all the estimates and they said no, we're paying you the deductible, that's all. …We had to go to our homeowner's insurance,'' he said.

He and his wife complained to the Florida Public Service Commission.

"You may as well talk to the wall. That was totally futile,'' he said.

Riordan, 60, who lives in Seminole, said Progress Energy says it will reimburse her for the electrician she called after the Aug. 8 incident.

Her neighbor, 64-year-old Robert Martin, whose home also was affected that day, said he learned Friday that Progress Energy will give him about $500 for damages.

In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, Lynn Woolums, Evan Jones and Bama Finocchi, whose claims were rejected by Progress Energy for electrical problems on May 31, are waiting for responses to complaints they submitted to the PSC.

PSC spokesperson Cindy Muir said the matter is under review.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

>>FAST FACTS

When to call

• If you have flickering lights, lights that get bright and then dim.

• If you see a transformer with obvious damage or that is overgrown with vines.

• If you add electrical load to your home, such as a bigger air conditioner, a tankless water heater or an addition/renovation.

Progress Energy, customer service, 1-800-700-8744

Tips

• Add a surge protection program to protect home wiring from power surges.

• Ensure your home's wiring is in good condition, including the ground wire.

• Install an uninterruptible power system.

Source: Progress Energy

Families want repayment from Progress Energy for power damages 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 10:07am]
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