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Maryland 'dodged a bullet' with powerful storm

Highway and Road TransportationHurricanes and Tropical StormsHurricane Sandy (2012)Local GovernmentKevin KamenetzJohn A. Olszewski, Sr.

Hurricane Sandy's howling winds and torrential rains walloped Maryland late Monday and early Tuesday, cutting electricity to more than 300,000 utility customers and disrupting life for millions from Ocean City to the suddenly snowy mountains of Garrett County.

Authorities linked the storm to two deaths in the state, as well as a carbon monoxide exposure that sickened three people in North Laurel and a leak of at least 20 million gallons of sewage into the Little Patuxent River in Howard County. The town of Crisfield saw major flood damage.

But by Tuesday morning, as it became clear that New Jersey and New York had taken the brunt of the storm, area officials expressed relief that the impact wasn't nearly as bad as initially feared.

"We were prepared for the worst," Gov. Martin O'Malley said. "We were spared having to endure the worst."

Wednesday morning should bring signs that things are getting back to normal, from the reopening of many local government offices to the resumption of MARC train and commuter bus schedules. Early voting will resume after being canceled Monday and Tuesday. And some area schools will be back in session, though not in Harford County and Baltimore City.

As predicted for much of the last week, Sandy made landfall with historic proportions, hurling its relentless rains and hurricane-force winds across a 350-mile swath of the Atlantic coast. But Marylanders benefited when the storm edged north and marched inland faster than predicted. After landing in New Jersey, Sandy — downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone — ravaged Atlantic City and other coastal areas before pushing into Manhattan, where a storm surge swallowed up cars and flooded subway tunnels.

"We all dodged a bullet on this one," Anne Arundel County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Thompson said Tuesday from the county's emergency operations center. "If that storm would have wiggled a little bit south, with those winds, it would have been a doozy."

Still, even that glancing blow caused havoc in Maryland. Fierce winds toppled more than 200 trees in Baltimore alone, contributing to significant power outages. As of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, roughly 66,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers remained without electricity, after roughly 280,000 had their power restored.

Harford County was hit particularly hard, with a third or more of the homes and businesses without electricity, officials said. Bel Air Town Administrator Chris Schlehr said half the town was still without power Tuesday afternoon, but otherwise, "we're doing reasonably well."

Massive amounts of rain fell in the area — Parkville got 8.4 inches, the National Weather Service said — and wind gusts reached 58 mph at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where scores of flights were canceled.

The Bay Bridge was rocked by 74-mph sustained winds and struck by 90-mph gusts three times, according to state transportation officials. The bridge closed for 18.25 hours — the longest weather-related shutdown in its history. It reopened at 9 a.m. Tuesday following a damage assessment by bridge inspectors.

A tree crashed through a home on Suitt Drive in Pasadena Monday night, killing 74-year-old Donald C. Cannata Sr., police said. "It was a tremendous tree," said Lt. Glenn Shanahan. "We needed a crane to take it off of him."

Earlier Monday, 66-year-old Mai Ai Lam-Phan of Montgomery County died in a head-on collision in Clarksburg. The state medical examiner, noting that witnesses had seen standing water on the road, said the accident would not have occurred but for the hurricane.

O'Malley described the deaths as a "tragic loss of life" but said they were "far fewer than what our neighbors had to endure" in other states, including 17 in New York and five in New Jersey.

The hurricane's back end hovered over the East Coast Tuesday, dropping more rain onto ground already saturated by the five to eight inches of rain that had fallen in the past 48 hours. The storm pushed into the Midwest and New England, blanketing Michigan and Vermont with wind warnings. Much of Maine was under a flood watch.

The power outage numbers place Sandy's impact well behind on the list of Maryland's recent destructive storms. About 338,000 customers in BGE's territory lost power at some point because of Sandy, compared with around 750,000 outages during both Hurricane Irene last year and June's derecho windstorm. In 2003, Tropical Storm Isabel knocked power out for 790,000 BGE customers for up to eight days.

Though O'Malley cheered Maryland's relative good fortune, he noted that Sandy caused severe flooding in Crisfield.

"That's going to be a long haul," O'Malley said of restoring Crisfield, which he is scheduled to tour Wednesday. "Some people may not be able to return to their homes."

In Ocean City, while no injuries were reported the storm washed away about 100 feet of the oceanside fishing pier. The resort town notched its highest storm surge since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, with up to 3 feet of standing water on some streets.

By Tuesday, crews were already removing debris from the iconic and undamaged boardwalk, and contractors were brought in to move sand away from the sea walls.

In Western Maryland, the storm dumped more than two feet of snow in places. As it piled up at more than an inch an hour, a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 68 was closed. Trucks with snowblower attachments and a "towplow," a double-wide snowplow, cleared the way.

The snow was just one of many difficulties for highway crews. At the storm's height overnight, 132 state roads were closed and 111 signals were dark, according to the State Highway Administration.

"The challenge was the intensity and diversity of the storm," said Melinda Peters, SHA administrator. "We were prepared. We had the right assets in the right location to succeed."

Little by little, the transportation system has returned to normal.

The last airline to shut down at BWI Marshall on Monday morning was the first to come back 24 hours later. A chartered military Delta 747 from Ramstein Air Base in Germany landed at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

In Howard County, at least 20 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Little Patuxent River after a treatment station in Savage lost power late Monday night and didn't regain it until midday Tuesday, county officials said.

County Executive Ken Ulman said the county's public drinking water is safe and there is no need to boil water. "I want to be clear," he said. "There is no issue with the drinking water."

In North Laurel, Ulman said, two women and a man were taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center overnight, one in critical condition, with carbon monoxide poisoning after they attempted to run a gas-powered generator inside their home. Both women had been released from the hospital as of Tuesday evening. The man remained hospitalized.

In Baltimore, a ban on driving in the city was lifted at noon Tuesday, and most parking restrictions in low-lying Fells Point ended. The subway resumed operations, as did local bus service and its transit service for disabled riders.

Fells Point resident Mike McDaniel, who was walking his dog Tuesday morning, summed up the feelings of many Marylanders who had spent the evening braced for the worst: "This really wasn't that bad at all."

In Canton, Chad and Ilene Bailey braved the storm several times Monday night to climb aboard their 30-foot motorboat in Canton and make sure the bilge pumps were working. The wind was howling.

"I thought, 'Is this what a tornado sounds like?'" Chad Bailey said.

When the couple returned Tuesday morning, they were pleased to find "no more leaking than with a big rainstorm," he said.

At least 230 trees fell in the city, about half in streets, and the city had 35 crews working to remove them. Among the trees that toppled was an Osage Orange tree along Greenspring Avenue that was estimated to be at least 400 years old, according to the Friends of Druid Hill Park.

"This was a serious storm," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference Tuesday. "Our police, fire, EMS were all out in full force last night and we responded to every single 911 call and our police were highly visible," throughout the city, she said.

In the Dundalk neighborhood of Watersedge, Jean Parker was dealing with a backyard and basement full of water Tuesday afternoon. But she said her Baltimore County home has fared far worse in past storms.

"It's nothing compared to Isabel," she said. "And we didn't lose electricity…We're really blessed with that."

Parker got a surprise visit from Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., who were touring eastern Baltimore County to assess storm damage.

Earlier, the two officials drove through the Turner Station neighborhood with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. All agreed that damage in the county was not as bad as many had feared.

Parts of the county experienced one to three feet of flooding , Kamenetz said, compared to six feet during Isabel. The county did not suffer as much tree damage as in past storms, he added.

Local officials also fielded fewer complaints about power outages than they expected.

"What I'm hearing from the district is that we dodged a bullet, and not as many people lost power," Olszewski said. "Not only were the leaders proactive with the storm ahead of time, but the residents took heed…There was better preparedness this time. People didn't mess around with it because they knew what the consequences would be…It could have been a whole lot worse."

scalvert@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Luke Broadwater, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Alison Knezevich, Steve Kilar, Annie Linskey, Kevin Rector, Andrea Siegel, Candy Thomson, Yvonne Wenger, Scott Dance and Timothy B. Wheeler, and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Sara Toth contributed to this article.

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