By Luke Broadwater and Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun
12:14 AM EDT, July 2, 2012
BGE officials continued to scramble Sunday to restore power to nearly more than 257,000 customers as the area suffered with temperatures near 100 degrees for a third day and braced for a chaotic Monday-morning commute.
After the state was rocked Friday night by a fast-moving series of storms, Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would closely monitor the restoration work of Baltimore Gas and Electric, as well as Pepco, and would urge them to beat their own projections. The power companies have said they could restore power to nearly all area homes by this weekend.
"There is no one who will have his boot further up Pepco's behind or BGE's than I will," O'Malley said. "We've got a lot of people who are suffering right now."
BGE has told O'Malley it is "sparing no effort or expense" in working to restore power, company spokesman Robert L. Gould said Sunday night.
"This is a historic storm," Gould said. "We understand as we enter Day 3 and 4, frustration will mount. At the end of the day, a lot of this is manual labor. It still comes down to guys cutting trees up, clearing trees from lines, and guys putting up new poles and lines."
Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties announced that some school buildings would be closed Monday — and related activities canceled — and O'Malley granted all nonessential state employees "liberal leave."
Meanwhile, intersections without working traffic lights promised to be a problem for commuters around the state. The governor predicted that the drive Monday would "very, very likely be a very, very big mess."
Baltimore City expects 80,000 commuters will pick their way to work among downed trees and power lines and hundreds of out-of-order traffic signals. City spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said late Sunday that 144 signals were disabled in the city. Of those, 34 were at critical intersections.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said there would be police officers — and new stop signs — at critical intersections, especially those on main routes into the city from the north.
"We have brought in extra contractors to make sure the job gets done," said Rawlings-Blake, who also passed out block ice to residents suffering from the sweltering heat Sunday. "We are placing officers on those important intersections where we haven't been able to repair those lights."
On Sunday, 14 state roads were closed, down from 184 at the height of the storm, the State Highway Administration said. Along state roads, more than 160 signals are inoperable because of power outages, down from more than 250, the agency said.
The Maryland Transit Administration said it expected its services to be fully operational Monday and urged commuters to use public transportation.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who traveled around Baltimore this weekend, said she was taken aback by the number of nonworking traffic lights and expressed concern for families and businesses "suffering tremendous economic loss."
"We've never had a situation like this where we've had tremendous damage from something that was undeclared and unknown," Mikulski said. "This is really unprecedented."
Elsewhere in Maryland, commuters in the Washington suburbs were told to expect particularly bad headaches.
"In Montgomery County alone, 430 traffic signals are dark," said State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischlar.
"[Monday] morning is going to be a very, very difficult commute for some folks," he said.
Winners and losers
The two-hour storm blew customers in through the doors of some businesses and money off the counters of others.
Gas stations that had electricity to operate their pumps, pet-friendly hotel chains such as Sheraton, health clubs with air conditioning and hot showers, and any restaurant with power were the big winners. But for other businesses, especially restaurants and bars without power, this was a lost weekend.
Martha Silver traveled from Silver Spring to Annapolis before she could find a hotel to take her husband, two kids and her dog, Sakua.
"There was nothing in between," she said while waiting for a table at the Annapolis Sheraton with Sakua on a leash. "We stopped in Beltsville and Rockville, and they were all filled."
At the Double T Diner in Annapolis, cars filled the parking lot and the line was out the door. Meanwhile, across the street, David Finkelstein, owner of Bagels and ..., said he served more than 1,700 customers, twice the normal Sunday morning traffic.
The lines were long, too, at the Shell station on West Street, where most customers were filling up their gas tanks as well as gas cans needed to fuel generators.
"I've been up all night feeding the generator," said Melanie Dands of Severna Park, who uses it to run a refrigerator, one lamp and a pair of fans — one directed on her and the other on her 17-year-old daughter while they sleep. "It was so sudden, no one was prepared. And BGE keeps giving us false hope. First the power will be on at 8, then 2, then 11:30. They must think they can tell us anything because we're stupid."
At Baltimore's Belvedere Square, C.T. Sartory, a supervisor at Atwater's, said breakfast service was more than double — from an average of 250 to more than 700. As late as 2 p.m., people without power were still arriving, filling every table and relaxing in the coolness with their newspapers.
Meanwhile, Dan Chaustit, owner of the wine bar Crush, said he had to throw out $30,000 worth of meat and seafood. Looking dismayed, he said he wouldn't be restocked and ready to open until 5 p.m. Monday.
"It isn't just the lost food," he said. "We lost a Saturday night and part of a Friday night. That really hurt."
Meteorologists have identified Friday night's storm as a "derecho," a "widespread, long-lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms," according to the National Weather Service.
In a conference call Sunday, O'Malley said the winds caught officials off-guard. He called the storm "unprecedented and sudden."
"We took a hurricane punch without the typical three or four days of hurricane warning," the governor said.
Immediately after the storm, more than 1 million Marylanders were without power.
As of late Sunday, power had been restored to about 365,000 BGE customers, but more than 257,000 remained powerless.
Baltimore County had 72,000 BGE customers without power. Baltimore City had 70,000. Anne Arundel had nearly 50,000 and Howard County 24,000. North Baltimore neighborhoods had the highest concentration of power outages, according to BGE.
Crews from Florida and Texas, numbering in the hundreds, were en route to Maryland on Sunday to help crews restore power, officials said.
Friday's storm killed two Marylanders and left another feared dead.
A 25-year-old Edgewater man was killed when a tree fell on his Ford Explorer in Anne Arundel County. A 71-year-old Silver Spring woman's body was found after a large maple tree fell on her home in Montgomery County. And a man was feared dead when the Coast Guard called off a 19-hour search for a 28-year-old after a boat capsized early Saturday about 15 nautical miles south of Annapolis.
Local governments responded to the power outages and heat by opening a slew of cooling centers and urging residents to treat intersections without working lights as if they had four-way stop signs.
Officials also warned residents to avoid using power generators inside homes, garages, basements or any enclosed area. Prince George's County fire officials said residents of two homes were sickened by fumes caused by generators, and a fire was started in a third home by improper use of a generator.
Baltimore officials even postponed until Thursday a plan to close three fire companies as a cost-cutting measure; the companies will be used to clean up after the storm and help people suffering from heat-related health problems.
The Baltimore firefighters union president, Rick Hoffman, said the decision to keep the companies open was an admission that they are needed.
"The Fire Department is nothing short of an insurance company," Hoffman said. "You cannot predict when things are going to happen."
And the coming week's weather is a concern.
The temperature hit 101 degrees Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, and forecasters predicted readings approaching 100 throughout the week.
Moreover, some worried that more thunderstorms could be on the way, knocking out even more power.
Kevin Whitt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., said additional thunderstorms could be on the way. The agency was monitoring a front in Chicago but was more concerned about potential activity in West Virginia and Ohio — where hot and humid weather seemed ripe for a storm, he said.
"The threat is there," he said. "If we see storms developing in central Ohio, that could be a cause for concern."
BGE's Gould urged patience in what he called an "extended" process of restoring power.
"This storm actually caused more damage that some hurricanes," he said.
O'Malley agreed it was too early to grade public officials and the utilities on how they have responded.
But he said, "I'm not satisfied until every home is back on and every business is back on."
As of late Sunday, more than 263,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers were without power. Here are the totals for the Baltimore area, broken down by county:
Anne Arundel County: 49,713
Baltimore County: 72,314
Baltimore City: 70,471
Carroll County: 1,702
Harford County: 4,330
Howard County: 24,217
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