Thousands still lack electricity; Crews struggle to fix lines hit by trees, ice near Baltimore, D.C.; Some sleep in shelters; BGE predicts power will be restored to all by late tonight


Despite warmer temperatures and hundreds of utility crews working around the clock to restore electricity to neighborhoods across Baltimore and Washington suburbs, about 139,000 Maryland households were without power last night.

Although Howard and Montgomery counties suffered the most damage in the ice storm that swept through the area late last week, power outages forced people across much of Central Maryland to abandon their homes and seek refuge in hotels and emergency shelters.

Hundreds of people found ways to stay out of the cold yesterday by heading to the movies or running errands. Some tackled the practical problems, such as keeping their food cold, and waited hours in line to get dry ice.

Employees worked into the night, repairing overhead cables that had snapped and removing trees and branches that were dangerously close to power lines or had fallen onto roadways under the weight of the ice.

"It's certainly improving," said Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates statewide responses to disasters. "People are digging themselves out today. They're going to the mall, they're going to the store, and the bank is a zoo. They want hot showers and warm meals. Things are returning to normal."

But the return is slow.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials said power should be restored by late tonight to almost all of its 62,000 customers who were struggling with the blackout yesterday.

In the Washington suburbs, officials of Potomac Electric Power Co. said some of its 85,000 customers without power may have to wait until Tuesday for relief.

Many residents who had set up temporary lodging at the homes of friends and relatives and at local hotels -- many of which had been booked since Friday -- were able to return home yesterday.

"It's on. It's on. Thank you, Lord, it's on," shouted Mary Brock, as she flipped on a light switch in her Woodlawn rancher at about 8: 30 a.m. after a night in a nearby shelter.

Brock and her family lost electricity at 5 a.m. Friday. When winter coats and a table full of oil lamps didn't warm them, the Brock family packed blankets and bags about 11 p.m. and headed for Owings Mills High School, one of two emergency shelters opened by the Red Cross.

"A lot of people think you should stay home, stay in the cold and wait it out. Why burn candles when you can come here?" Ralph Brock had said earlier, laughing over a cold breakfast after a restless night on a tiny cot.

Although Red Cross workers expected between 100 and 1,000 people at the shelters, the Brocks were joined by just 15 other people at the Owings Mills gymnasium. Shelters at Cockeysville Middle and Howard High schools were closed yesterday after only a handful of people arrived. One Howard County shelter remains open, at Florence Bain Senior Center, 5470 Ruth Keeton Way, Columbia.

In Montgomery County, hundreds of people sought shelter, forcing county officials to open a fourth shelter in Wheaton last night.

Many people chose to stay in local hotels.

"We were swamped," said Usha Mohbir, a desk clerk at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda. "I've never seen anything like that before."

At the Columbia Inn Hotel, the O'Connor family was trying to remain optimistic about their unplanned vacation. They spent $170 for a one-night stay.

"We can finally go back to the home that we've just moved into," said Joshua O'Connor, 38, who checked his wife and daughter out of the hotel yesterday when he learned that power was restored. "Thank God these days don't come that often."

National Weather Service meteorologists called yesterday's meltdown part of the January thaw. Sunny skies will give way to clouds and rain late tonight, but above-normal temperatures are expected for the next three days, with highs in the 50s.

The havoc wreaked by the ice will not soon be forgotten.

At its peak, the storm left more than 332,000 customers -- 119,000 in the Baltimore area -- without electricity. Schools closed, shelters opened and hospital emergency rooms overflowed.

For the first time in two decades, out-of-state utility crews were called to assist Maryland power companies. More than 100 crews from North Carolina, New Jersey and Delaware pitched in.

"Even with all the crews out there doing work, we expect it will be Sunday night before we restore power to just about all our customers," said Karl Neddenien, a BGE spokesman.

"The problem is we'll finish a job, go do another job and another tree or tree branch will come down and knock out power again. In some cases, we've restored power to the same customers three and four times."

At various locations, BGE and PEPCO handed out free dry ice to customers who were trying to keep food from spoiling in warm refrigerators.

At the Rockville PEPCO center, about 60 people were in line waiting for dry ice to arrive from Baltimore. Some waited with children; one woman brought her dog.

"I've been in line for more than two hours, and I'll be in line as long as it takes," said Greg Caley of Wheaton.

PEPCO gave away 30,000 pounds of dry ice before running out about noon. Another shipment was not expected to arrive until 3 p.m.

To make matters worse, traffic on Route 355 -- a main north-south artery in Montgomery County -- slowed to a crawl at several intersections where signals were out. Of the 700 signals in Montgomery County, 110 were not working at 5 p.m. yesterday.

Robert Breon Jr. and two co-workers with Penn Line Services Inc. in Pennsylvania started their day at 4 a.m. yesterday, sawing through a massive maple tree that had snapped in half on Gwynnbrook Avenue near Reisterstown. By 9 a.m., they moved to nearby Garrison Forest Drive, where tree limbs weighed down by ice were hanging dangerously close to the ground.

Said Breon: "Everybody says this stuff is pretty, but I can't stand it myself.

"Too much ice, too quick. This is the worst."

Sun staff writers Jamal E. Watson and Brenda J. Buote contributed to this report.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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