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Hurricane Irene still brews a few dark clouds in Towson

Three months after Hurricane Irene turned off the lights in hundreds of thousands of homes in Baltimore County, Towson residents affected by the storm used a town hall meeting called by State Sen. Jim Brochin on Monday to take BGE to task for its response.

The meeting, held at Towson High School, was attended by dozens of residents who spent the first week of September in the dark — and won't let BGE forget about it.

"It's a joke. An absolute joke," said Kelly Geritz of Lutherville, who complained not only about the week-long outage at her home on Seminary Avenue after Irene, but about overall problems in her neighborhood, where she said residents "lose power every time the wind blows."

Before Towson-area residents could take part in the cathartic featured attraction — venting pent-up gripes toward BGE — they listened to BGE Liaison and Investigations Director Ervin McDaniel and Customer Planning Director Ron Carstens outline details about why power was out for so long.

The numbers, when taken on their own, are startling. During the week after the storm, some 1,300 separate trees fell, and BGE received reports of 10,112 downed wires, as many as they normally would in a year.

"It's hard to put into words the damage that it does to an electric system when we have one pole come down," McDaniel told residents. "It requires a lot of work to put that pole up."

But after the presentation, some level of vitriol was common from the speakers.

Sharon Hartley of Lutherville took the BGE speakers to task for, among other things, reliance on out-of-state crews to do work that they proved unprepared for.

"Why should we have to wait for outside people to come in?" she asked.

At Hartley's house, a downed wire in the backyard caused a small brush fire, but she said county fire officials and BGE passed each other the responsibility for hours before it was taken care of.

"The bottom line is they're archaic and they have not done their job," she said. "In any other job, they'd all be fired. We're here tonight because we're not happy."

Revisiting priorities

For his part, Brochin said one of the reasons to bring up Irene three months later is to evaluate priorities for restoration after such outages.

During Irene, BGE first restored critical customers such as hospitals and sewage plants, as well as public safety buildings. Once those were restored, the focus shifted to the damage that affected the most people, followed by homes and businesses.

Brochin said schools should be higher on the priority list. He said he received many complaints from residents who lost power at their homes and were left scrambling to deal with their children while schools were closed.

"Now they have day care issues, and they can't go to work," he said. "They're stuck without power."

Were schools open, Brochin said, parents could have spent their days at work and picked their children up at the end of the day. "The whole process becomes much more tolerable," he said.

"When you guys look at lessons learned, it would be a really good suggestion if we took schools and they took a higher priority," he said.

Fifth District County Council member David Marks was among those who took issue with the way BGE disseminated information to the public. Many pointed out that the company's website and social media devices were useless when there was no power.

McDaniel acknowledged one of the main lessons learned from Irene was that BGE needed to refine the way it gets information from the field and to its customers, which would alleviate much of the confusion among out-of-state workers and the office staff , who were unable to answer customer questions.

Carstens said in the wake of the storm, BGE is planning "significant investment in Baltimore County" going forward.

He said the utility company has already created a task force to focus on reliability issues in the 42nd District, and listed 15 capital projects in its five-year plan that included new feeders, substations, and infrastructure improvements across the county.

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