250,000 Md. homes remain darkened; Utility crews work double shifts to restore power; Sewage floods Jones Falls; Calls pour into BGE; dry ice runs out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A quarter-million Maryland homes remained without power in the wake of Hurricane Floyd yesterday, with residents jamming phone lines for help and scurrying for scarce dry ice to preserve refrigerators full of rapidly spoiling food.

Adding to the chaos of the storm's aftermath was what utility officials called a freak occurrence: the loss of power to a major Baltimore waste treatment plant, causing a damaged pump to spew millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls -- bound for the Inner Harbor.

The sewage has been spilling since Thursday afternoon from a pumping station in the Hampden area, said city Department of Public Works Spokesman Robert Murrow.

"It's a one-in-a-hundred-year chance that both the primary and back-up systems would lose power," he said. "We've been working around the clock to fix the problem."

Though Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials said they were making progress in tackling their worst storm in several decades, 207,360 of their 1.1 million customers still lacked electricity as of 9 o'clock last night.

Statewide, almost 250,000 homes had no power as of late yesterday, with Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties the hardest hit.

As the utility's crews worked, residents from Crownsville to Pikesville fumed over meals gone bad. Stymied by a shortage of dry ice around the East Coast, they vied for it at the few commercial companies that had any to sell.

Even those with electricity lacked many of their normal connections to the outside world.

TCI Communications, the cable system for Baltimore, was off the air much of yesterday. Baltimore public radio station WJHU-FM (88.1) was silent. Computer problems left 1,000 people without Internet connections in Harford and Cecil counties.

In response to the power outages and other storm-related problems, Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a directive yesterday afternoon allowing state agencies to set aside rules that would ordinarily restrict work crews from logging extended overtime hours.

The directive paves the way for hundreds of utility workers, public works crews, debris-hauling truck drivers and others to work double shifts in the storm cleanup.

BGE had more than 1,000 workers in the field yesterday, and outside crews were expected from as far away as Illinois.

"This has affected our entire system, unlike the January ice storm," said Stephen Wood, BGE vice president of electrical transmissions.

The timing of the storm posed a particular problem for Orthodox Jews who celebrate Yom Kippur beginning at sundown tomorrow and usually cook food for today's Sabbath and for the Monday holiday in advance.

Power outages forced many to reschedule or relocate their holiday preparations.

Shoshana Addi, a Baltimore mother of six, was baking her braided loaf of challah, an egg-rich white bread, in a friend's kitchen.

"We'll make it just as good," she said cheerfully. "And we'll light plenty of candles for dinner."

Byron Berman of Northwest Baltimore planned on cooking his Sabbath roast chicken on a gas grill in the back yard. Monday's holiday feast: cold cuts and a big batch of tuna salad, kept cold on dry ice.

The traditional Sabbath lights would be supplemented by extra candle power -- "in the living room, in the bathroom, everywhere," Berman said with a chuckle and a shrug.

Compounding the problems was a shortage of dry ice, normally a stock item to help residents save food without electricity, around the East Coast, utility officials and ice company employees said.

Berman, 52, was one of the last in a long line for dry ice at Capital Carbonic Corp. on Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, which ran out of the precious commodity shortly after noon yesterday.

On a normal day, the company gets 10 to 30 walk-in customers, said secretary Laura Dilley, 34, of Brooklyn. More than 500 powerless people showed up pleading for ice yesterday.

BGE customer service workers opened up a dry ice giveaway site at 1 p.m. yesterday, and even though the Eastpoint Mall location wasn't publicized on TV and radio until 1: 30 p.m., 50 cars waited in line when the giveaway began. The company had 58,000 pounds of ice to give away in 14- to 15-pound bags -- enough for fewer than 4,000 customers.

"We've ordered ice from companies in Ohio, West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and as far away as Iowa," said Raymond L. Wenderlich, BGE's manager of customer care. "But we aren't sure when it's going to get here, and as far as we're concerned, we'll believe it when we see it."

Managers at a Mars Supermarket in the Woodbridge Shopping Center in Edgewood gave away 1,500 pounds of dry ice when the power came back on yesterday morning. The supply lasted two hours.

"It was just word of mouth," said grocery manager Bill Welch. "It's like someone in the desert needing water. People were calling up, screaming and yelling."

They also were calling BGE in record numbers -- and often not even getting an automated answer.

"If you had a way of leaving a message, all they would have found out is that one transformer blew out in front of my house," said Cecelia Madden, 68, of Crofton. "They've got to find a better way to handle emergencies."

Carl W. Henn was irate over his fifth loss of power in just a year of living in Pikesville: "I've lived in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country and I've never seen anything like this. Every place has weather, but no place else has constant power outages like this."

BGE officials said they had doubled the number of workers handling calls, which had simply overwhelmed the company's phone system.

"I think most customers underestimate the magnitude of this storm, especially with a sunny fall day out there," Wenderlich said.

Unable to get through to the utility, frustrated residents also clogged police and fire emergency lines.

"We are getting a lot of 911 calls out of desperation from people who are trying to get through to other agencies, like BGE or DPW, hoping they can get some kind of results," said Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Inspector Michael Maybin. "It clogs up the lines for people who have legitimate emergencies."

When Floyd flooded his basement and knocked out his electricity, Richard Seymour, 50, of Elkridge, Howard County, rigged up a pump and a generator to run it. But the generator's gas tank has to be refilled every two hours. Day and night.

"I'm just burned out," Seymour said. "I need some sleep."

In Shady Side in Anne Arundel County, a 100-foot extension cord tethered John Norton's refrigerator to a plug in his neighbor's home, which had power. That helped, said Norton, 51.

But "I can't flush the toilet because the well pump is on electricity," he said. He was pouring bottled water into the toilet to flush the waste.

Refrigerators, lights and water heaters weren't the only things missed. Internet service in some of Maryland's hardest-hit areas was out because local network computer providers shorted out or lost power.

"This is kind of devastating for us," said James Nash, director of operations for IXI, an Internet service provider in Harford and Cecil counties. He worried that customers would abandon his company.

Then there was the human waste spilling into the harbor.

"We're putting up signs to warn people about going into the water," Murrow, the public works spokesman, said. "We were able to divert some of the sewage but unfortunately some of it has spilled into the Jones Falls."

The effect that millions of gallons of raw sewage could have on the Jones Falls or the Inner Harbor was unclear last night. A state Health Department spokeswoman said she had not heard about the spill; city health officials couldn't be reached.

Michael Beer, founder of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, said he has seen the sewage in the water outside the pumping station. "The river looked muddy; you'd never know that by looking at it that there was sewage mixed in with it," he said. "I don't think people should be alarmed. As long as people stay away from the river, it'll clear itself out.

"Millions of gallons may sound like a lot, but it's a fraction of the river," Beer said. "When the pumps are repaired, it won't be very long before the water is acceptable quality."

The Jones Falls is a popular river at times showcased by city officials as one of Baltimore's most picturesque attractions. This weekend, an annual event called the Jones Falls Valley Celebration was to have opened with canoeing and kayaking on the waterway.

But yesterday, the event's organizers announced they had canceled the trip because of hazardous water conditions caused by the hurricane.

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