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Hudson's Corner: Storm shows Baltimore area is unprepared for weather emergencies

Hudson's Corner

4:02 PM EDT, July 8, 2012

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After the derecho storm struck Baltimore, our Roland Park neighborhood resembled a war zone when I returned 18 hours later from the beach. We had experienced tornado force winds and a water spout there that week, but we were unprepared for the damage we found here.

As we drove up Paca Street, nothing seemed out of the ordinary until we reached Remington, where street trees and branches had snapped. We passed the old Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Hampden that was struck by lightning in 2008. The crooked steeple was intact, but nearby trees were broken. North on Falls Road, for blocks and blocks, one side was without electricity. As we entered Roland Park, tree after tree was uprooted, large branches lay everywhere and stoplights did not work.

At home, our neighbors came to sit in our air conditioning and charge their cell phones and computers. They had worked outside in the heat all day, cutting up limbs that had narrowly missed their houses.

I vividly remembered the perpetual motion that begins after a large tree falls. In the past, we have had two massive oaks fall onto our property. It is no fun. It is terrifying. So is every minute of strong winds, lightning and rain blowing in all directions that precede the fallen trees.

After one of these tree-felling events, all one does is look at multi-ton trunks lying against or through the house, or on the ground, and imagine what might have happened if someone had been caught under one. As clear-headed and functional as one might seem after a massive tree falls, a state of shock and perpetual motion takes over.

In both instances when trees fell at our house, the response of neighbors and the tree company was outstanding. In 1984, the utility company came the very night the first one fell.

What fueled the terror and shock after this year's derecho is how out of control and unprepared everything felt. On Saturday, when we drove into Baltimore, I did not see one utility truck. I did not see any as our neighbors and we climbed into the car and rode around adjacent neighborhoods. In Homeland, we saw sidewalks ripped up and massive trees inside bedrooms, where structural damage was severe.

All I could wonder as we rode through Guilford was whether their power was as affected as that in neighborhoods where wires and critical junctions are not buried.

In Roland Park, a neighbor who lives near Deepdene Road has lost power six times since Memorial Day because of a persistent problem in that quadrant. As of July 5, almost one week after the storm, her power was still not restored.

More than a million customers in the Baltimore-Washington area were without power after the storm. That is a lot for a utility company to handle. That power was slowest to be restored in Baltimore, and was maddening until the mayor raised a big fuss. Do our dollars not count as much as those in Montgomery and Howard counties? Do the senior citizens in city nursing homes and retirement communities not count as much as those in other jurisdictions?

As utility trucks showed up, some drove around looking lost. Others awaited local supervision. I heard that our diligent City Council members called Roland Park constituents to find out which streets lacked power. Why is it that BGE did not know this? Our friends on Beechdale had the utility truck show up to fix their outage 18 hours after power had been restored.

Where was the information coordination?

While this storm showed how dependent we are on electricity, it also showed that area preparedness for sudden emergencies is frighteningly out of service.