Kinsley Ross shuttered Rust-N-Shine, her Highlandtown antique shop, hours early Saturday. The power had gone out — again.
“You go online and it says it’s gonna be up and running in an hour, but it never is,” she said, “so I shut the store down.”
Since July 20, there have been four large power outages in East Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. One lasted an hour and a half, another five hours, another for 12 hours and 12 minutes. On average, each outage impacted 421 customers.
“It’s very frustrating, because it keeps happening,” Ross said. “It feels like they’re just putting a Band-Aid on something.”
The outages have compounded the difficulties of an already stressful summer in the city, residents said. As residents work from home and prepare for their kids to begin school remotely, too, they’re spending more time indoors, and lapses in air conditioning and internet access are particularly noticeable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taxed infrastructure in Baltimore and nationwide in unique ways, and for Highlandtown residents, the power outages feel like more of the same.
“It’s crazy because we have no mail, we have no recycling and now we have no power,” said Nick Frisone, a board member of the Highlandtown Community Association.
In Baltimore, recycling service ground to a halt this week due to a Department of Public Works employee shortage caused in part by the pandemic. And across the nation, reports of delayed mail deliveries have surfaced, drawing concern months ahead of a presidential election that will rely heavily on mail-in ballots.
Meanwhile, Highlandtown is one of the city neighborhoods that’s been hardest hit by the pandemic. The 21224 ZIP code that includes Highlandtown and Canton has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. says that outages in the neighborhood this weekend — two on Friday and one on Saturday — were the result of a damaged underground cable and a downed wire. A July 20 outage also was the result of an underground cable failure, BGE spokesman Nick Alexopulos wrote in an email.
The underground cables in the area has been “consistently renewed since 2002 to improve service reliability,” Alexopulos wrote, and so far, this year is the company’s second most reliable on record, given that outages are down 20% compared to this time in 2019.
BGE crews were inspecting several electric circuits in the Highlandtown area Monday to “identify equipment that needs to be repaired or upgraded,” Alexopulos wrote.
“We recognize that any outage is at minimum an inconvenience for customers,” Alexopulos wrote. “We appreciate the patience of those who have experienced recent outages as we work to improve their service.”
July 20, when there was a neighborhood outage lasted 12 hours and 12 minutes, was one of the hottest days of the summer. It was one of two days in July that reached 100 degrees, according to temperature readings from Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
That day, Ross and her neighbors sat outside in an effort to stay out of their rapidly warming homes. From a distance, they chatted and sipped drinks, Ross said.
“We just kept hearing the breakers pop,” she said. “Every time you would hear it you were just like: ’That’s not a good sign.’”
Three times this summer, Keith Gibson has taken off from work because the power went off in his Highlandtown home. Gibson, a software engineer for the Social Security Administration, relies on Wi-Fi to do his job.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, so rolling around with my government-issued laptop and trying to work out of a coffee bar is not ideal,” he said.
Summer power outages in the neighborhood have been fairly common over the past few years, Gibson said, but this summer stands out.
“It’s kind of been a typical issue every summer over the last, maybe, five years or so, when it’s just consistently hot outside,” Gibson said. “And this summer, it has been way more often than we’ve ever experienced before.”
The uptick in outages has left residents wondering whether aging infrastructure — or maybe an increase in home energy usage with more residents staying home this summer due to COVID-19 — could be to blame. Meanwhile, visible issues are especially alarming. Gibson said he’s even seen sparks emitting from the top of a utility pole.
“It happened so quickly,” Gibson said. “The next thing you know, you’re just staring up at one of these poles with smoke rolling off of it. In some cases, there is an actual fire on the top of one of these poles.”
Local businesses, already facing losses due to COVID-19, have perhaps born the brunt of the recent outages.
Joe DiPasquale, owner of DiPasquale’s Italian Marketplace, estimated that he threw away $4,000 worth of food this weekend. Friday’s outage lasted most of the day, he said, and he had to toss out pre-prepared meals, deli meats and frozen foods.
He also shut down the store in an attempt to keep it cool. Having customers walk in and out would have hastened the decline of refrigerated items, he said. Although, at least initially, some customers were determined.
“Believe it or not, they shopped with flashlights,” he said. “That was hilarious. They just couldn’t be stopped.”
Sally O’s, a newly opened restaurant down the street, lost about 50 reservations Saturday evening, about half of the night’s customers, because of the outage, said Jesse Sandlin, its owner and head chef.
“We’re kind of just starting to build a name and a clientele,” Sandlin said. “It’s unfortunate.”
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State Dels. Luke Clippinger and Brooke Lierman have reached out to BGE about the issues. Both are Democrats representing the 46th District, which includes Highlandtown.
“We need to hear more from BGE about what’s caused these outages, what’s caused them to happen more than once in a fairly discrete area,” Clippinger said.
The ZIP code’s coronavirus statistics make the situation more alarming, Lierman said, since people ill with the respiratory disease could face added struggles with inadequate air conditioning and ventilation.
When the power went out this weekend, 81-year-old Jack Arnold worried about his nebulizer treatments. Arnold, who has COPD, is supposed to administer his treatments at 2 p.m. and before bed each night, but his machine relies on electricity.
He missed a treatment Friday. On Saturday, he took his first treatment late. He’s hoping to talk to his doctor about getting a battery-powered nebulizer — one that wouldn’t rely on the capricious power supply in his Highlandtown home.
On Friday and Saturday, Arnold ate leftovers he couldn’t warm, and spent plenty of time on his front stoop, waving to neighbors as they passed by.
“Otherwise, I just stare at the wall, bored,” he said.