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Winds knock out power to 30,000 households; BGE, PEPCO restore service, to see it knocked out again; Utilities struggle to keep up


About 30,000 households lost power yesterday afternoon when high winds, rain and lightning hit the Baltimore area, even as utility crews worked to restore electricity to customers still without it after last week's ice storm.

Before the latest blast of weather, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews had restored power at about 3: 20 p.m. to all but about 6,300 households, the majority of them in Carroll and Howard counties.

But within the hour, lightning struck and winds gusting up to 70 mph toppled power lines. That put exhausted work crews back where they were over the weekend and left frustrated homeowners wondering how much longer they would be without heat and light.

Mike Kotewicz, 47, of Columbia, lost power for 31 hours from Friday afternoon to Saturday night -- only to lose it again yesterday.

"The wind came up, we had power and then we lost it," said Kotewicz, who was getting four bags of dry ice from BGE at The Mall in Columbia late yesterday. "We threw away a lot of stuff in the refrigerator Friday. The ice is for everything remaining."

In Baltimore, where there were two reports of roofs torn off houses, the number of households without power was 11,800, BGE spokeswoman Darcel Guy said. The numbers in area counties -- including those waiting for power after the ice storm -- were: Anne Arundel, 6,700; Baltimore, 5,000; Carroll, 4,900; Harford, 6,600; and, in Howard, 3,400.

Guy said BGE crews would restore power by today to those customers still in the dark from last week's ice storm. "First in, first out," she said. She couldn't say when power would be restored to those who lost it yesterday.

In Montgomery County, nearly 21,000 households were without power after a fire and multiple explosions Sunday at a Potomac Electric Power Co. substation in Olney.

About 200 people made use of temporary "warming centers" staffed by the county Department of Health and Human Services and the American Red Cross over the weekend, county spokesman Steve Simon said. Another 20 were expected to stay last night at a makeshift shelter in the cafeteria of the Executive Office Building, the seat of the county government, in Rockville.

Areas hardest hit in Montgomery County included Kensington, Silver Spring and upper Chevy Chase. Scattered outages were reported in Prince George's County and the District of Columbia.

Tom Welle, a PEPCO spokesman, said yesterday that more than 300 crews, including some from as far away as South Carolina, have been working overtime to restore service by late today.

BGE continued to distribute dry ice at the Ruhl Armory in Towson, Carrolltowne Shopping Center in Sykesville and The Mall in Columbia -- after giving out more than 275,000 pounds since Thursday.

PEPCO exhausted its supply after distributing more than 100,000 pounds over the weekend.

"Right now, we just can't get any more dry ice," said Welle.

Throughout the region, the scene yesterday was largely the same: Drivers found themselves navigating around tree branches that had snapped and fallen onto roads.

In Baltimore, firefighters responded to reports of arcing wires, one tree fire and several cars damaged by tree limbs.

In Dundalk, residents said gusts of wind whipped through the neighborhood, ripping a porch awning from its moorings and propelling strips of aluminum through the air.

"You could hear the velocity of the wind coming through, coming down the street," said Nancy Gibault, of the 1900 block of Wareham Road, where the damage seemed to be concentrated.

Carroll County road crews were summoned about 5: 30 p.m. to remove a large tree that fell and blocked Raincliffe Road near Slacks Road southeast of Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

The National Weather Service forecast for today was sunny and breezy, with highs in the 50s.

While the lingering loss of power brought moans from most residents, for many local businesses it meant a boom.

Piccolo's restaurant in Columbia got an extra $600 worth of business Friday night after agreeing to hold a wedding rehearsal dinner for a couple whose original plans were ruined because of the blackout.

"They called us around 4 or 5 o'clock [in the afternoon] to schedule," said Susie West, the manager at Piccolo's. "They were just frantic. We were thrilled to do it for them."

Hotels became popular spots for those eager for a warm place to eat, shower and watch TV.

The Sheraton Columbia booked all 200 rooms Friday night, and nearly filled to capacity Saturday night.

Sun staff writers Jay Apperson, Mike Farabaugh, Peter Hermann, Richard Irwin, Devon Spurgeon and Nancy Youssef contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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