Irene's greatest aggravation: power outages

It was bad enough that Hurricane Irene stole Lisa Dillin's electricity.

But when the Wyman Park resident learned that just up the street, the lights were on and the ceiling fans whirring, she unleashed a sentiment familiar to the power-deprived across Maryland.

"That stinks!" she cried.

Though Irene did not cause widespread flooding in Maryland or smash buildings to the degree many feared, the storm left as many as 850,000 businesses and households without power. By 1:30 p.m. Monday, that number had fallen to 472,000, said a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. said it has restored nearly 50 percent of customers affected within 24 hours of the storm's passing. Company officials said it expects to restore service to the majority of customers by late Friday with some isolated outages that may extend into Saturday.

From Ellicott City to Owings Mills to Ruxton, Irene collapsed massive trees into power lines, deprived major intersections of functioning traffic lights and left residents hoping against hope that life would return quickly to their televisions, refrigerators and coffee makers.

Marylanders tried to make the best of it, playing old-fashioned games by candlelight, reacquainting themselves with neighbors and cleaning up debris together. But many said they'd lose patience after a few days.

Gov.Martin O'Malley urged patience Monday from the Maryland households and businesses that were still without power because of Hurricane Irene.

"People are going to be without electricity for a long time, days," O'Malley said, adding that he still could not offer a definitive timetable for restoration.

"I can tell you there are crews working around the clock," the governor said. "We'll stay on this."

Of the 472,000 without power as of midday, about 354,000 were customers of BGE.

When asked if he was satisfied with BGE's efforts, O'Malley said, "I think none of us are satisfied, and we won't be satisfied until everybody is back on."

But he praised BGE's efforts to import hundreds of out-of-state utility workers before the storm. O'Malley compared Irene to the twin snow storms of 2010, noting that those storms left only 333,000 without power, while Irene-related outages peaked at 822,000.

"There was a lot more damage done … than was done even in the snow event," he said.

The governor said BGE was close to finishing repairs on the power stations and "feeders" that serve large clusters of homes across the Baltimore area. But he said the utility company has a long way to go in fixing 2,000 damaged transformers, which are closer to houses and serve much smaller clusters.

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said Sunday the combination of powerful winds and rain-saturated ground caused many trees to topple onto power lines and damage vital equipment. He added that more trees could fall and new outages could continue to spring up. BGE is the largest power supplier in the Baltimore metropolitan area with more than 1 million customers. As of 11:30 a.m. Monday morning, BGE reported that about 354,000 customers were without power.

Maryland appeared to rank second in outages among states hit by Irene. Virginia reported about 2.5 million residents without power, the second-most in state history. North Carolina, where Irene made landfall, reported more than 400,000 customers without power. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts each reported between 300,000 and 500,000 outages at various times Sunday.

Some customers of BGE reported that its phone outage line was spotty, a problem that apparently was related to a third-party vendor contracted to handle overflow calls, Gould said.

"It appears that the third-party vendor is having problems on their end, and it's not only affecting us but other utilities," Gould said.

BGE asked customers who were having trouble getting through to dial zero to get a live customer service representative.

While many residents tried to remain patient, Herman Botteon of Southeast Baltimore said he was fed up. "It's not that the power is still out," he said. "It's … the runaround. I call and talk to a person who gives me one story, and then I talk to another and get something different."

Botteon said he had been told that a crew was in his neighborhood, only to be told later that the crew had been pulled to address a more populous area. He said he had called 10 times about an arcing wire next door, to no avail.

The situation on Beech Avenue, where Dillin lives, seemed a particularly cruel example of Irene's capricious nature.

"We don't have power," said Jane Ann Krabbe, laying out the scenario in plainest terms. "They do," she said, pointing across to the western side of Beech.

The peculiar divide was apparently the result of a spectacular collision on West 39th Street, where an uprooted tree cleaved a wooden utility pole in half and left a nest of wires splayed across the road.

A BGE worker told Krabbe that the damage could be remedied by late Sunday or Monday. She and her husband, Kent, seemed to accept the whole episode with grace.

"We played Scrabble by candlelight," Krabbe said.

"Things like this tend to get people out of their houses," her husband added. "You slow down, take a walk, run into neighbors you don't see for weeks or months at a time. It's nice."

A few blocks up Beech, Dillin and her neighbors laughed about the power divide as well, albeit with a tinge of aggravation.

"When we lost power last night, I could still see them with their porch lights on," said Chip Banister, pointing up the street. "I don't know if it's frustrating exactly but …"

"It seems ridiculous," Dillin interjected.

Gould said neighborhood divides happen because different sides of a street can be served by two different "feeders," which he described as the backbone of the company's power equipment. Some of the feeders were badly damaged by the storm, he said.

Banister said his father, one block to the north, was among the power-privileged. The difference must represent an invisible line between Hampden and Roland Park, he said jokingly.

"They're the ones living large, with their fans blowing and everything," Banister said, grinning.

Many Marylanders tried to shrug off Irene's blows. They knew the storm was likely to steal their power and were just happy it didn't slap them around worse.

Teri Hunt is used to the power going out in her Ellicott City neighborhood. The combination of many large trees and above-ground power lines makes it inevitable. During a previous storm, a tree crashed into Hunt's house and forced her to move out for six months.

In that context, being without power for a short time seems like nothing.

"I'm just grateful it's in the yard," she said, surveying the wreckage of an uprooted poplar. "This is no big deal. I can replace my mailbox."

Hunt's neighbors seemed equally undaunted by the loss of power. Instead of moping, they threw on work gloves and with the help of a chain saw, began clearing the poplar from their road.

"It seems like the wind blows just a little, and we lose power," said Ashu Mehta, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2007. "But it's America. You can still survive."

He said he had played cards with his three young children the night before and had an afternoon of pingpong planned for Sunday. "We limit them to an hour of TV anyway," he said. "They'll be fine."

In Catonsville, Jerry Hockstein said he would have been more surprised if he had not lost power. He planned to spend the afternoon cooking up all the food from his refrigerator. "If nothing else, we'll eat well tonight," he said.

In Towson, Josie George clutched five coffees for family members and neighbors as she left a crowded Starbucks. The Ruxton teenager didn't seem terribly flummoxed that none of her neighborhood's homes or businesses had power.

"It is a pain," George said. "You would think that at least the Internet would work. But it's kind of peaceful. We've all been sitting around talking to each other, and we probably wouldn't be doing that otherwise."

George said her family's good cheer might give way to crankiness if the outage lasted beyond Monday.

Anyone who has ever lost power for a few days knows the gripes and questions that arise: Why can't they just put all the lines underground? Why are they fixing that problem two streets over but not the one on my block? How is it that 42 years after we put a man on the moon, we can't keep the lights on through some wind?

Neighbors trade rumors of BGE truck sightings and try to guess where they might fall in the power company's priority list. (Gould said that if you're not part of a block of 2,000 or 3,000 outages, you'll likely need patience.) Everyday routines become uphill battles.

Yvonne Gladney waited in a line of more than 20 customers at a Pikesville Starbucks. "If I had power, I'd be fixing my own coffee," the Randallstown resident said, admitting that the lack of caffeine had left her a little cranky.

Gladney tried to cover all the bases in preparing for Irene. She washed all of her work clothes in advance, and avoided the grocery so she wouldn't have to throw out food. But she didn't account for her coffee.

"It's the little comforts," she said, explaining the storm's ability to aggravate. "The most irritating thing is that you feel disconnected from regular life."

Baltimore Sun reporter Hanah Cho and wire services contributed to this article.