Power restoration to Baltimore County homes in the wake of Hurricane Irene lagged behind the rest of the state Wednesday, as tens of thousands of residents entered a fourth evening without lights.
Large numbers of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County households also lacked power, putting Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. under fire from irritated ratepayers and their elected leaders.
Maryland were shuttered, traffic lights at intersections remained dark, and sewage was backing up at some homes. About two dozen schools — most of them in Baltimore County — were expected to remain closed Thursday, further postponing the new school year.
"It is a very frustrating experience," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "I certainly encourage the General Assembly to evaluate [BGE's] performance at the appropriate time."
Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin fired off an angry email informing constituents that "further inquiry" was merited into whether the utility was adequately prepared for the hurricane.
Officials from BGE, the state's largest electricity provider, stressed that the company has restored power to customers faster than during Tropical Storm Isabel, which knocked a similar number of homes and businesses off the grid in 2003. By Thursday morning, power had been restored to more than 655,000 customers affected by Irene, the company said.
Rob Gould, a spokesman, said the utility is on track to have most outages repaired by Friday. "We're certainly being extremely aggressive with restoration," he said. The utility has more than 5,000 workers trying to restore service, including those imported from nearly a dozen states.
The state's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, will hold hearings to evaluate the way companies responded to the storm. The hearings are routinely scheduled after major weather events, said PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian.
At 7 a.m. Thursday, roughly 80,000 BGE customers remained without electricity. On Wednesday evening, about 10,000 of the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative homes and businesses smacked by Irene remained without power.
Pepco, which was criticized for its slow response in last winter's snowstorms, had restored power to almost every household and business on its grid.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the city announced it will distribute a limited supply of ice and Military Ready to Eat meals to those still without power and seniors in need. Residents in need can request assistance by calling the Department of Housing and Community Development at 410-396-1214.
Baltimore County continued to bear the brunt of the outages, with almost 32,000 households down as of 7 a.m. Thursday. In Anne Arundel, 18,000 households were without power; Baltimore City had 9,500.
"A lot of people had 48 hours of patience," Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday. "That 48 hours is up. People are getting understandably prickly." The governor, a Democrat, said he "will not be satisfied" until all outages from Hurricane Irene are restored.
O'Malley noted that power had been restored to a larger percentage of Southern Maryland homes, an area of the state that was hit particularly hard. "I'm not sure [Baltimore County] was hit any harder," he said.
Chris Burton, a BGE executive who's helping to oversee the power restoration project, said the outage figures only prove that there was more storm damage in Central Maryland than in other parts of the state. The additional outages required more repair work and allocation of resources, he said.
Official damage estimates will take more time, but Comptroller Peter Franchot estimated Wednesday that the evacuation of Ocean City cost the state about $2 million in lost tax revenues.
In Anne Arundel County, some homeowners awoke Wednesday to an unpleasant surprise: Sewage systems down since Sunday morning had backed up and were seeping into streets and filling basements.
Residents of the Brockington community in Fort Smallwood, which is having the problem, are "very mad," said William Aaron, 57. About 35 homes are affected, he said, adding that the development has taken on a rancid odor.
"You go in and say: 'What is that smell?' " Aaron said. "And then you recognize it."