Officials attack BGE over outages; City, Baltimore. Co., Arundel most affected

Power restoration to Baltimore County homes in the wake of Hurricane Irene lagged behind the rest of the state Wednesday, as tens of thousands of residents entered a fourth evening without lights.

Large numbers of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County households also lacked power, putting Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. under fire from irritated ratepayers and their elected leaders.

Days after the weekend storm hit, some businesses in Maryland were shuttered, traffic lights at intersections remained dark, and sewage was backing up at some homes. About two dozen schools — most of them in Baltimore County — were expected to remain closed Thursday, further postponing the new school year.

"It is a very frustrating experience," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "I certainly encourage the General Assembly to evaluate [BGE's] performance at the appropriate time."

Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin fired off an angry email informing constituents that "further inquiry" was merited into whether the utility was adequately prepared for the hurricane.

Officials from BGE, the state's largest electricity provider, stressed that the company has restored power to customers faster than during Tropical Storm Isabel, which knocked a similar number of homes and businesses off the grid in 2003. By Thursday morning, power had been restored to more than 655,000 customers affected by Irene, the company said.

Rob Gould, a spokesman, said the utility is on track to have most outages repaired by Friday. "We're certainly being extremely aggressive with restoration," he said. The utility has more than 5,000 workers trying to restore service, including those imported from nearly a dozen states.

The state's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, will hold hearings to evaluate the way companies responded to the storm. The hearings are routinely scheduled after major weather events, said PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian.

At 7 a.m. Thursday, roughly 80,000 BGE customers remained without electricity. On Wednesday evening, about 10,000 of the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative homes and businesses smacked by Irene remained without power.

Pepco, which was criticized for its slow response in last winter's snowstorms, had restored power to almost every household and business on its grid.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the city announced it will distribute a limited supply of ice and Military Ready to Eat meals to those still without power and seniors in need. Residents in need can request assistance by calling the Department of Housing and Community Development at 410-396-1214.

Baltimore County continued to bear the brunt of the outages, with almost 32,000 households down as of 7 a.m. Thursday. In Anne Arundel, 18,000 households were without power; Baltimore City had 9,500.

"A lot of people had 48 hours of patience," Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday. "That 48 hours is up. People are getting understandably prickly." The governor, a Democrat, said he "will not be satisfied" until all outages from Hurricane Irene are restored.

O'Malley noted that power had been restored to a larger percentage of Southern Maryland homes, an area of the state that was hit particularly hard. "I'm not sure [Baltimore County] was hit any harder," he said.

Chris Burton, a BGE executive who's helping to oversee the power restoration project, said the outage figures only prove that there was more storm damage in Central Maryland than in other parts of the state. The additional outages required more repair work and allocation of resources, he said.

Official damage estimates will take more time, but Comptroller Peter Franchot estimated Wednesday that the evacuation of Ocean City cost the state about $2 million in lost tax revenues.

In Anne Arundel County, some homeowners awoke Wednesday to an unpleasant surprise: Sewage systems down since Sunday morning had backed up and were seeping into streets and filling basements.

Residents of the Brockington community in Fort Smallwood, which is having the problem, are "very mad," said William Aaron, 57. About 35 homes are affected, he said, adding that the development has taken on a rancid odor.

"You go in and say: 'What is that smell?' " Aaron said. "And then you recognize it."

Power outages also were a major concern for Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, who met Wednesday with some restaurant and hotel owners who had temporarily closed their businesses. She had harsh words for BGE, saying the utility should put a greater emphasis on ensuring that workplaces could reopen.

"If they cared about people, they'd put people back to work by getting the companies electricity," said Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties.

Pam Hess, who owns and operates three hotels in Edgewood in Harford County, is among those affected by the power outage. She has not paid her 45 employees in days because the hotels are closed and the 150 rooms empty.

"These are people who work paycheck to paycheck," Hess said. "Beyond the economic impact on our business, it is really starting to hurt people substantially."

There were brighter signs in other parts of Maryland.

The Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plants were gearing up to run at full capacity again, after one unit was knocked out by storm damage, according to Constellation Energy Nuclear Group LLC, which operates the plants. A gust of wind blew a chunk of metal siding into one transformer, triggering an automatic shutdown.

Full electric power was restored Wednesday afternoon to the Randallstown Center nursing home and to the Advanced Dialysis Center, which share a building in the 9100 block of Liberty Road.

The nursing home, with 147 residents, had been using a generator since the power went out at 4 a.m. Sunday, said Jeanne Moore, spokeswoman for Genesis HealthCare, the Randallstown Center's corporate parent.

It was one of six nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Maryland still on generators Wednesday afternoon "and doing well," according to Nancy B. Grimm, director of the state Office of Health Care Quality, which oversees 10,000 health care facilities in Maryland.

The other five homes were all in Baltimore City or Baltimore County. They included Rock Glen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Baltimore City; St. Joseph's Nursing Home in Catonsville; Milford Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore County; Holly Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Towson, and Springwell Senior Living Community, in Baltimore's Mt. Washington section.

When the Maryland Emergency Management Agency reported it had no more generators to offer, Genesis appealed to one of its vendors, who sent one by truck from Charlotte, N.C.

While they waited, Moore said, Advanced Dialysis staffers "did have to transport four dialysis patients to a location in Rockville for treatment. … Then they were able to care for all dialysis patients on site."

Asked about the nursing home's appeals to BGE for quicker restoration of service, Moore said, "There was some frustration. We felt we had exhausted all efforts, contacting local delegates, state officials to try to help us have power restored more quickly," she said.

Grimm said nursing facilities in Maryland "have reported appropriately to us that they were on generators," Grimm said. "No one has been harmed as a result. We're keeping an eye on all the facilities, and they are reporting when they go back on full power."

Across the state, about two dozen schools planned to stay closed Thursday due to power outages. Baltimore County has the most with 16; Baltimore City is set to close nine and Anne Arundel County will shut seven. All Harford County schools will be open.

One Baltimore County resident losing patience was Jerome Ferguson, 37, of Pikesville.

He and his wife haven't had electricity at home since the weekend, so they sent their two children to his mother's house, which had power. He was particularly concerned about the health of his 2-year-old son, who suffers from asthma and is supposed to wear a mask at night that plugs into the wall and delivers vaporized medications.

"It is a horrible situation," said Ferguson, who spent most of Wednesday camped out with his wife at a Panera Bread in Catonsville to take advantage of the free WiFi and working bathrooms. He said his son missed days of his medication and has been coughing.

Ferguson said BGE has "failed their customers."

He added: "BGE is not looking at us as a priority as far as getting our electricity back on. It shows how unorganized and unprepared they are for things that happen in the state of Maryland."

Baltimore Sun reporter Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.