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Officials stress energy conservation, preparedness with more wintry weather possible

The bitter cold is forecast to subside Friday, but with four recent weather-related deaths reported in the state, officials are urging Marylanders to remain prepared —and warning of high utility bills with nearly two months of winter to go.

While highs around 40 degrees might feel balmy Friday, they are about the norm for this time of year. The repeated blasts of polar air that have covered the region in recent weeks have this month poised to rank as one of the 10 coldest Januarys on record here.

Highs could reach the upper 40s this weekend, but a weather pattern bringing bouts of wintry precipitation could set in after that.

The cold was a factor in four deaths in recent weeks, including that of a man in Baltimore, according to state health officials. That brings the state's weather-related death toll this winter to 11, behind last winter's tally of 14 through Jan. 28. There were 17 cold-weather-related deaths in the state last winter.

The other recent cold-related deaths were two men in Prince George's County and a man in Talbot County.

Health officials did not release information about the victims or details about their deaths.

Gov. Martin O'Malley warned Marylanders on Thursday that big heating bills will follow next month. He urged residents to continue limiting their electricity use. Electricity grid operator PJM Interconnection called for conservation when the frigid weather spurred record winter-month usage at least twice this month.

"I want to encourage all Marylanders to conserve energy, to be very conscious of ways you can turn off lights and reduce energy bills," O'Malley said. He said consumers should take energy-saving measures "not only to help the grid but to help your pocketbook."

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials said customers should expect larger bills, and the utility is giving customers flexibility to pay for them. BGE is allowing customers to enroll immediately in its budget billing program, which spreads customers' estimated yearly usage into equal monthly payments and ordinarily takes at least a month for enrollment.

Customers with up to $500 in late payments can also enroll in a new retroactive budget billing program, the utility said Wednesday.

Customers' energy usage has risen by an average of about 10 percent this month compared with usage in January 2013, BGE officials said. Even if thermostats are kept at a recommended 68 degrees, they said, bills can surge because systems have to work harder to maintain warmth amid low temperatures outside.

The cold caused a scare Thursday at Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, where 230 elderly residents awoke to a chill. A boiler had failed, said Brant Hart, executive director of the community. But a backup was in place, he said, and the heat was back on within a few hours.

"If we only had the one, we would have been in deep trouble," Hart said. "It starts to cool off real quick when that goes off."

More wintry weather could be ahead. Forecast models suggest a stormy pattern across the U.S. over the first week or two of February, though it's still too early to lock in any forecasts.

"While I don't think we will see the extreme cold, we will certainly see below-normal cold weather across the northern tier of the country while the South heats up," AccuWeather.com meteorologist Henry Margusity wrote on the website Wednesday. "The contrast will lead to some big storms that can produce heavy amounts of snow."

Maryland Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Kenneth Mallette said the snow and ice storms that crippled Atlanta and much of the Southeast this week point to the need for preparedness. Those regions might experience such a storm only once a decade or so, giving them less practice and making it less cost-effective to spend money on resources such as plows and salt.

He urged Marylanders to keep blankets and food in their cars just in case, and to remember to avoid exposure to the cold if it returns.

"All in all, it's all about getting the word out," Mallette said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MdWeather

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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