The Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) has acted to help electric customers affected by Hurricane Ike who may have trouble receiving and paying their bills due to the storm's devastation.

In an order issued last week , the PUC suspended certain market rules regarding customer deposits and disconnection of electric service . For customers impacted by Ike (meeting a certain criteria discussed below), electric companies cannot charge deposits for customers to establish service, or deny service based on not receiving a deposit from such customers. The rule gives customers displaced by Ike a chance to set up new electric service at their new location without having to post an additional security deposit.

Electric companies are also prohibited from disconnecting electric service to customers impacted by Ike. The deposit and disconnection waivers run through October 10, but the PUC will re-examine them at a meeting on October 8 and may decide to extend them.

Customers in certain zip codes in the Houston-Galveston area are automatically eligible for the added disconnection protection and deposit waivers. These are customers in CenterPoint Energy areas whose zip codes as of 9 p.m. on Sept. 23 had outages to more than 60% of customers living in the zip codes.

Customers in other CenterPoint zip codes, and customers at Texas-New Mexico Power, are eligible for the emergency consumer protection measures if they lived in a county that is included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster declaration (or in Rusk County) and provide evidence that they have been adversely impacted by Hurricane Ike. Such evidence could be aid from FEMA, the Red Cross or similar governmental/non-profit organizations, rental assistance from Disaster Housing Assistance Program-IKE (a joint effort by FEMA and Housing and Urban Development), or proof of home damage. Proof of residency in an affected county, through a driver’s license, electric bill or voter registration card may be required. There are also specific rules for customers in the Entergy area.

Officials have reported that 6,000 Texans remain in shelters after Ike, and another 8,000 are in FEMA-funded hotel rooms. The emergency protections apply to eligible customers whether they remain in the Ike-affected counties or have relocated.

Several electric companies have also announced additional consumer protections for those in affected areas, such as longer times to pay bills, extended bill payment deferral plans, waiving late fees, and extending special summer customer protections for low-income, the ill and disabled and those age 62 or above, which were scheduled to end September 30.

The PUC also moved to make sure customers aren't hit with overly high estimated bills. Because utilities have been focused on getting the power back on, they haven't been able to read meters, and bills issued since Hurricane Ike will be estimated until all service is restored.

The PUC ordered utilities to use their best efforts to take into account the fact that customers lost power for several days when estimating bills, to ensure the bills reflect such lower usage. The utilities are also to account for the fact that customers with damaged homes may be using less power, or no power if they have evacuated, when computing the bill estimates.

The PUC also directed the electric companies in the Houston-Galveston area to develop a process to allow customers to initiate electric service . Utilities have not read meters to initiate service for customers moving into that area because workforces are currently devoted to restoring service.

The Commission has put together a website for customers to check on the status of power outages .

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