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Sandy soaked Laurel, but damage minimal for most

By Melanie Dzwonchyk, mdzwonchyk@patuxent.com

11:01 AM EDT, October 31, 2012

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Sandy was one for the record books. Whatever it was named – from Frankenstorm to Hurricane Sandy to Superstorm Sandy and finally post-tropical storm Sandy – this week's storm affected more than 13 states, leaving nearly 6.5 million customers without power, according to a CNN report.

By Wednesday morning, Laurel's schools were open, buses and commuter trains were running and most people were heading back to work. At 8 a.m., Prince George's County officials said all state roads were open in the county and all traffic signals were working.

Polls reopened for early voting today, and after Sandy shut down early voting locations Monday and Tuesday, the state Board of Elections extended early voting through Friday, Nov. 2. Early voting hours were also expanded and are now 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In Laurel, the city government sent email blasts and Twitter notices beginning days before the storm, urging residents to plan and prepare for the worse.

"Other than Snowmageddon, this one is right up there at the top of my list," Martin Flemion, the city's director of Emergency Services, said Tuesday afternoon.

Flemion said the amount of preparation the city undertook for Sandy was unprecedented. Efforts began Friday, Oct. 26, when the Emergency Operations Center was prepped for its activation Monday morning; the city's mobile command unit and mobile canteen were staffed; the Department of Public Works and Transportation's fleet and equipment were checked out; and Parks and Recreation Department workers began arrangements to open emergency shelters, if needed.

Flemion also credited residents for their preparation efforts and said he didn't see the usual last-minute frantic shopping at local hardware stores.

And like others, he said Laurel pretty much avoided the worst of post-tropical storm Sandy's wrath.

"I do think it could have been much worse on us," he said, "but I think the slight changes in the storm's path helped us out a lot."

Falling trees not the only risk

As city officials had predicted earlier, most of Laurel's damage came from trees that fell in the storm's high winds, with gusts of 60 mph locally on Monday.

Among the felled tree reported was one that landed on a family's home in the 7800 block of Contee Road, sending them to stay with relatives.

The Rev. Sheila McJilton heard a loud boom and found a tall pine blocking her way off the front porch of her Prince George Street residence. The tree, which fell from her next-door-neighbor's yard, clipped the side of McJilton's front porch and took out a few bushes and phone lines but did little other damage. McJilton, who is rector of St. Philip's Episcoal Church in Laurel, said responding emergency workers quickly cut away that part of the tree blocking the entrance to the house.

Trees damaged several homes in West Laurel when they fell on roofs and carports, and on Tuesday the whine of tree contractors' chain saws could be heard as the cleanup work began.

Tim Reyburn, a CERT volunteer in Russett, reported downed street signs and bent light poles and a few blocked streets.

Indirectly, Sandy also sent three North Laurel residents to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning.

County paramedics and firefighters responding to an emergency call early Tuesday morning found three people inside a home in the 9800 block of Brevard Street with elevated levels of carbon monoxide. They also found a generator at the bottom of the stairs on the ground floor of the house, located in a doorway that led to a closed garage.

The three unidentified people were rushed to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, one in critical condition, the other two in serious condition. By day's end, the latter two had been released from the hospital, while the condition of the third was upgraded to serious.

Sewage leak in Savage

After Superstorm Sandy caused power outages late Monday night, millions of gallons of sewage started spilling into the Little Patuxent River around 11 p.m. from the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Savage, the Howard County Health Department said.

Power had been restored to the plant Tuesday, a Howard County government spokesman said.

On average, the plant treats 50 million gallons a day, or about 2 million gallons an hour. As many as 2 million gallons of sewage per hour was being discharged into the river from the plant, located a half-mile east of Route 1 and Route 32, according to a news release from the department.

That means nearly 25 million gallons of sewage had spilled into the Little Patuxent River by Tuesday.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said Tuesday that public drinking water is safe in Howard County and there is no need to boil water.

The main stem of the river has been affected with the bulk of the overflow, and residents are being asked to avoid the Patuxent south of Route 32.

"As of now, there is a minimal health risk," Ulman said. "We continue to tell people not to go into the river, or wade in standing water."

Ulman said the river water was less than 1 percent sewage, diluted by the massive amount of rain water, and that health officials are monitoring the situation.

New technology all around

For many, Superstorm Sandy was a chance to put social media as a communications tool to the test. County and city officials made use of Twitter, Facebook, email and dedicated alert systems such as Notify Me Prince George's to urge residents to prepare for power outages and possible flooding in advance of emergencies that might come with the storm.

Laurel city spokesman Pete Piringer, who has been in the job less than a month, kept a constant Twitter feed going, alerting residents to blocked roads and downed trees and sharing photos of city employees and rescue workers on the job.

"This was something new to us," Flemion said of the city's use of social media in an emergency event. "Pete Piringer did an outstanding job tweeting out information."

The information was flowing both directions. Flemion said Piringer was picking up reports of emergency situations and informing the city's Emergency Operation Center, which in turn would coordinate with on-site representatives from Laurel Police and rescue and fire personnel, to help with blocked roads and other emergency situations.

Flemion, who oversees the city's EOC with city administrator Kristie Mills, said that while most residents contact BGE on their own when they lose power, the EOC "conducts damage assessments all the way through an event, and provides it to BGE so they can ... line up their resources."

The storm was also a chance for city officials to try out a GIS tracking system for its fleet, providing a visual representation that allowed officials to prioritize the city's emergency efforts, Flemion said.

"We saw the value of social media in this event," Flemion said. "A lot of these resources we've been playing with over the last year, but this was the first time we actually employed them."

Flemion said the city also tried out its new radio system that allows various departments, including Public Works and Laurel Police, to easily communicate.

"This was new technology, new to everybody," he said. "More training in the right place will help out."

In situations such as Superstorm Sandy, Flemion said the city "prepares for the worst and hopes for the best."

Pete Pichaske, Sara Toth and Luke Lavoie contributed to this story.