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Marylanders grow irritated at continuing power outages from Irene

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More than 285,825 Maryland households and businesses remained without power Tuesday morning in the wake of Hurricane Irene, prompting residents and Baltimore's mayor to question the pace of restoration efforts and the governor and utility executives to plead for patience.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said Monday that some customers may not have power until late Friday with scattered outages lingering into Saturday.

The power outages and transportation snarls continued to have wide-ranging impacts across Maryland after Saturday night's storm. Many Baltimore-area schools closed and will remain closed on Tuesday. Major intersections lacked functioning traffic lights, and some roads have been blocked by fallen trees. Storm damage also slowed transit service on Monday with the possibility of continued problems on Tuesday.

But after two days of clear skies after Hurricane Irene sideswiped the state, frustration set in. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized BGE on Monday, saying of the company's performance: "There are opportunities for improvement."

About 33,700 city residents remained without power about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. She said she aired her concerns Monday during a meeting with BGE President Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr.

"The needs of Baltimore City are different than those of other jurisdictions, and I wanted to make sure they understood that and that they heard it from me," Rawlings-Blake said during a meeting with The Baltimore Sun's editorial board. "If we don't get it right in expressing that and if they don't get it right in deployment, things could get very bad very quickly."

Her concerns were echoed by residents across the state. In Wardour, a badly damaged section of Annapolis, residents expressed exasperation amid dozens of fallen trees and the hum of generators.

"It's very frustrating," said community association president Cheri Wendt-Taczak. "It seems like we are always the first to go and the last to get power back."

In Ruxton, Warren and Pattie Updike tried to make the best of the outage with a pancake breakfast cooked on a propane stove. But they were glum when BGE's prediction of a Monday restoration hadn't come true by mid-afternoon. "They say, 'We're working on it," Warren Updike said. "I understand we're one of hundreds of thousands.

But, he added, "I'm afraid we're on the bottom of their list."

His wife hung her jaw at the news that some residents might be without power until Friday. "You've got to be kidding," she said. "Ugh. This is not good at all."

"After a couple of days, it gets old quick," Warren Updike said.

At a midday news briefing in Reisterstown, Gov. Martin O'Malley asked Maryland residents to understand that Irene had inflicted a "wide swath" of damage and advised them to prepare for a long wait.

"People are going to be without electricity for a long time, days," O'Malley said. "I can tell you there are crews working around the clock. We'll stay on this."

Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Harford County and Anne Arundel County schools will be closed for a second day on Tuesday because of the widespread power outages. Howard County and Carroll County, where the damage from Irene was less severe, will open their doors for the first day of the school year on Tuesday.

The State Highway Administration said almost two dozen state roads remained blocked by trees on Monday and that traffic lights remained dark at almost 100 intersections. Police cautioned drivers to approach intersections cautiously and to flash their headlights to indicate yields at night.

Downed trees also caused significant damage to the overhead power system on the north end of the Light Rail, frustrating commuters and those headed to the State Fair, and forcing passengers to continue to ride buses to stops between North Avenue andHunt Valley.

Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Terry Owens said service might not resume until Tuesday but "we have people working around the clock to get the system back on line."

About a dozen people waited for the stand-in bus at North Avenue on Monday afternoon, and some had lost patience after an hour. Dave Gren had decided to take a "short cut" on public transportation to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium with his 10-year-old granddaughter Amirah.

"This might be the last time I take light rail," he said. "I left my car in Cherry Hill an hour ago, and if I had driven, I would be at the fairgrounds now. Grandpa made a mistake."

Jean Quickly, a state worker who rides the light rail home to Timonium daily, said she doesn't know why officials haven't learned from past storms and other problems.

"This happens quite frequently," said Quickly, who was already an hour and a half into a commute that normally take 30 minutes. "They always have a problem.… I don't know why they aren't better prepared."

The MARC Penn Line operated on a limited service schedule Monday so that Amtrak, which operates the line for the MTA, could repair damage from the storm. The Penn Line is expected to resume normal service on Tuesday.

About 235,000 BGE customers remained without power Tuesday morning. Pepco and other utilities in the state also continued to work to restore power to thousands of their customers. BGE had already restored power to hundreds of thousands of customers since the beginning of the storm. BGE is the largest power supplier in the Baltimore metropolitan area with more than 1 million customers.

"We certainly understand the frustration," said BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy. "We have employees who are working 16-hour days only to go home and have no power. So we're in this with our customers."

Foy noted that BGE always does a "lessons learned" study after a major storm so "we can make adjustments for the future."

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said that utility officials "had an opportunity to gain a good understanding of the concerns the mayor has regarding the outages." He added: "And we certainly had an opportunity to address the difficulty of dealing with the outages from our standpoint."

"It was a good exchange," he said.

When asked if he was satisfied with BGE's efforts, O'Malley said: "I think none of us are satisfied, and we won't be satisfied until everybody is back on."

In Baltimore County, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he was focused on helping BGE with restoration. Kamenetz said he had "conveyed the frustrations of customers" in meetings with top BGE officials. But "I'm not here to assess blame," he said.

O'Malley praised BGE for importing hundreds of out-of-state utility workers before the storm. O'Malley compared Irene to the twin snow storms of 2010, noting that those storms left only 333,000 without power, while Irene-related outages peaked at 822,000.

"There was a lot more damage done … than was done even in the snow event," he said.

The governor said BGE was close to finishing repairs on the power stations and "feeders" that serve large clusters of homes across the Baltimore area. But he said the utility company has a long way to go in fixing 2,000 damaged transformers, which are closer to houses and serve much smaller clusters.

If restoration takes until the end of the week, it would be comparable to the clean-up of Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, when the utilities took eight days to fix more than 1 million outages.

Paula Carmody from the Office of People's Counsel, a state agency that advocates for utility consumers, said her office would assess BGE's response after the utility companies submit storm reports, about three weeks after the cleanup.

"Mother nature is something you can't account for completely," Carmody said. "But there are things companies can do, acting reasonably, to be in a better position when storms come."

Foy and Gould said the recorded predictions customers receive when they call BGE's update line are generated electronically based on the industry standard for fixing a given piece of equipment. But with Irene, BGE workers are consistently finding more severe damage than expected, and their updates are often not logged into the recorded system as quickly as customers want.

"We recognize that there's a lot of frustration because people are given one time only to be given another when they call again," Foy said. "We're doing our best to work through it."

Downed trees are the other lingering problem from Irene. In Baltimore County, for example, 180 trees remained down on Monday and 89 of those were blocking roads, said Tim Burgess, chief of the bureau of highways. Some of the blocked roads were significant arteries such as Falls Road, Joppa Road, Manor Road and Jarrettsville Pike.

"As far as tree damage, this probably ranks up there with anything I've seen in 35 years," Burgess said.

The problem, he said, is that county workers can't touch many of the trees until BGE crews disentangle electric wires. "We're in a bit of a waiting period right now," Burgess said.

Workers faced the same problem in Anne Arundel County, where 48 roads remained blocked by trees, according to Dave Abrams, a spokesman for County Executive John Leopold. Abrams said the county has cleared all trees that aren't entangled with power lines.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporters Hanah Cho, Meredith Cohn, Nicole Fuller, Frank D. Roylance and Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.

FYI

Schools

Closed: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Harford County.

Partially open: Carroll County is open except for two schools without power; Howard County: open except for several schools without power.

Transportation

MARC Penn Line is expected to resume normal service on Tuesday.

Maryland Transit Administration said full light rail service might resume Tuesday.

Power

More than 266,000 Maryland households and businesses were without power Tuesday morning. Most BGE customers should have power by late Friday.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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