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Wind storm knocks out power in Maryland, closes bridges, topples trees; Hogan declares emergency

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A winter windstorm carrying gusts up to 70 mph ripped through Maryland on Friday, uprooting large trees, closing or clogging many of the state’s gateway bridges and roads, and leaving a quarter of a million people without power.

The powerful storm also claimed at least one life — a Baltimore County woman died after she was struck by a falling limb as she walked to her mailbox.

Major bridges across the region — including Maryland’s Bay Bridge spans across the Chesapeake — were closed at times for safety reasons. MARC service was suspended, and Amtrak canceled trains between Boston and Washington. Dozens of roads closed at least briefly due to fallen trees and power lines as crews scrambled to respond.

Public school systems, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties, closed Friday due to the storm, and many canceled after-school activities.

The National Weather Service called the windstorm “one of the most powerful... in recent years.”

“We rarely get these kinds of winds for such a long period,” said Ray Martin, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office.

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Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency Friday night. The executive order allows the state to coordinate support and provide extra assistance to local governments.

The severe and persistent winds were the result of Maryland’s being caught between a fast-strengthening storm moving just offshore and a strong area of high pressure centered over Illinois. Meteorologists expected gusts up to 60 mph to continue into Saturday across the region, until the low-pressure system battering the coast moves off New England. Breezy conditions will likely last through the weekend.

The Maryland Emergency Management agency reported 481,000 people were without power in the state as of about 7:30 p.m. Friday. The worst-hit areas were the Washington suburbs and Cecil County.

BGE said about 400,000 of its customers had been affected, the largest outage since 2012. The company said it restored power to more than 173,000 customers as of 9 p.m., with another 227,000 still without power. The company said crews were working around the clock to restore power, but officials said the use of bucket trucks to make repairs had been limited by the high winds.

BGE employee Holly Lash was keeping track of which customers were without power, making sure crews were assigned to each job. The windstorm has been steady, she said, as opposed to a tornado that has huge impact, but only in a compact swath.

“This is much more widespread,” she said.

The Bay Bridge spans, the Tydings Bridge over the Susquehanna River, the 301 Nice Bridge and US 40 Hatem Bridge were all temporarily closed at times Friday for excessive wind.

At Tydings, two tractor-trailers overturned and had to be removed from the roadway. In other areas, felled trees blocked bridges and roadways, including one rush hour incident when a downed tree reduced the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway to one lane in the Greenspring area, according to the State Highway Administration.

“This had far-reaching effects on every mode of transportation,” said John Schofield, an SHA spokesman. By early evening, 73 signals were out on state roads and 500 SHA workers on the road to clear debris.

In Baltimore, wind was blamed as a tree uprooted and fell onto cars traveling on an avenue northeast of Lake Montebello. On Friday evening, downed trees blocked both the northbound and southbound lanes of St. Paul Street in North Baltimore.

BWI Marshall Airport reported flight cancellations, and at Dulles Airport outside Washington high winds caused a bumpy descent for one plane as it landed. "Pretty much everyone on the plane threw up,” according to the weather service’s official aircraft report.

Gov. Larry Hogan called the storm a “rare and potentially very dangerous weather event.” He urged Marylanders to take warnings seriously, prepare for power outages and “check on your family, friends, and neighbors.”

Russ Strickland, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, asked people that “if at all possible, do not go out during the height of the storm.”

The Baltimore County fatality resulted when a 76-year-old Kingsville woman was struck by a falling tree branch outside her home on Cedar Lane about 12:30 p.m., county officials said.

Emergency crews arrived to find the woman pinned under a branch and pronounced her dead on the scene, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Tim Rostkowsi. Police did not identify the woman.

Tree branches and leaves littered Cedar Lane, a neighborhood street lined with mature trees. Police cruisers blocked off the area around the woman’s home, a one-story brick house with a large American flag flapping in the strong wind. Police assumed control of the investigation, “but it does appear it was directly due to the high winds and weather,” Rostkowski said.

He said the county experienced damage from wind, limbs and trees falling on top of vehicles and in a couple cases, into houses. Damage, he said, “has been pretty much widespread.”

In Harford County, a top layer of roofing was damaged on the auditorium building at Harve de Grace High School. In Churchville, a large tree was uprooted and fell over, clipping the front of Robert and Barbara McLewee’s house. Barbara McLewee said they lost a front porch and gutters. Upstairs bedrooms were exposed to the elements. Minutes later, a tree limb fell in the back of the house, hitting a car.

“It clipped the house and split more branches off. It was like a chain reaction thing … where it hit the roof and the gutters,” she said. She was left looking out the front door at a 10-foot high root ball.

Forecasters warned even large trees could fall.

“These prolonged damaging winds will definitely be capable of bringing the largest of trees down, especially considering recent rainfall soaking the soil,” meteorologists wrote Friday morning.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, a massive tree along McKeldin Mall was knocked over by the strong gusts.

Kevin Mullinary, district manager for the Davey Tree Expert Company in Baltimore, said his company had received about 20 calls for downed trees by late morning. He responded to a situation in Catonsville where two trees fell onto an apartment building, ripping a hole in the roof.

“The winds are putting a lot of pressure on trees,” he said. “After about 50 mph, that’s the magic point where wind starts doing damage to even healthy trees.”

In Annapolis, the Harbormaster's Office offered free mooring as the forecast for dangerous winds through Saturday worsened. City Harbormaster Beth Bellis said the offer is intended to keep boats that normally anchor around Annapolis waterways from dragging anchor and causing injury or property damage.

In Carroll County, road crews spent the morning clearing trees from a dozen roadways, and fire and law enforcement personnel responded to extinguish brush and electrical fires from downed power lines and to direct traffic around closed roadways. At one point, the county’s sheriff’s office asked people not to make use of flares to alert drivers to fallen trees because of concern over high winds.

Meteorologists noted that winds move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure, with Friday’s gusts akin to air being ejected from an overfilled balloon. National Weather Service meteorologists called them “exceptional,” attributing them to the potency of a coastal storm that developed within less than 24 hours.

The high pressure to the west is forecast to move into the region Saturday, bringing dry conditions, but winds are expected to be slow to calm as that system approaches. Gusts could still reach 30 to 45 mph Saturday, and then gradually diminish on Sunday, with seasonable temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

The storm began Thursday night, and overnight gusts reached 69 mph in parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties, 49 mph in Edgemere and Annapolis, and 52 mph at BWI Marshall Airport, according to the weather service.

Elsewhere, hurricane-strength winds of 80 mph to 90 mph were predicted for Cape Cod. The Boston area and south to Rhode Island were forecast to get 2 to 5 inches of snow from the late-winter storm. Heavy snow fell in Ohio, upstate New York and eastward. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated 200 National Guard members to help with the storm.

In New Jersey, officials worried that the squall could take a chunk out of beaches just south of Atlantic City that are still being repaired because of damage from previous storms. Winds were expected to increase drastically throughout the day, peaking Friday afternoon with gusts from 50 mph to 60 mph.

Airlines were making their own preparations. Delta, Southwest, JetBlue and American Airlines were allowing travelers to change their Friday and Saturday flights ahead of time to avoid delays and cancellations at key airports across the Northeast.

The Associated Press along with Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Scott Dance, Pamela Wood, Catalina Righter, Ellen Fishel, Christina Tkacik and E.B. Furgurson III contributed to this article.

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