Power outage caused by storm is worst in Maryland's history


Isabel arrived, and the lights went out in Maryland.

After Hurricane Isabel left more than 1 million customers throughout Maryland without power, residents and utilities began yesterday the arduous task of coping with what officials described as the worst electrical outage in the state's history.

BGE and Pepco, which serve the Baltimore and Washington areas, had hundreds of crews working 12- and 16-hour shifts to repair damaged power lines and substations.

In some areas, life seemed to be at a near-standstill. Strip malls sat dark and vacant, traffic moved at a snail's pace as intersections with no street signals were turned into four-way stops, and many roads were rendered impassable by downed power lines.

Residents with private wells faced a double whammy. Not only did they lack power, but they also had no water because their electrical pumps did not work.

Officials warned it could be several days before power is fully restored. Residents prepared for the worst.

"I'm sure we'll be out four or five days," said Helen Boyd of Oyster Harbor near Annapolis, a waterfront community on a peninsula stretching into the Chesapeake Bay that had lost electricity and was flooded and full of downed trees.

Boyd said she was planning to grill some meat, which would otherwise have gone bad without refrigeration, and then stay with a relative.

In the parking lots of a Timonium satellite campus of Loyola College and Westfield Shoppingtown in Annapolis, residents lined up for hours for dry ice provided by BGE.

Both locations ran out by noon, enraging some in line who had trouble learning from officials on the scene when, and if, more dry ice might be available.

"They tell us to listen to the radio. How are we going to listen to the radio out here?" said Tyva Womble, of Annapolis.

Terry Payseur of Lothian needed the dry ice to preserve medications for her sister, who she said was paralyzed and prone to seizures without them. "I don't know whether I should leave," she said.

Community spirit

Not everyone was angry.

In Timonium, an athletic club handed out bottled water, strangers shared cell phones and neighbors planned community cookouts.

"If we can't get ice, we are going to have a big cook-off and invite everybody," said Christy St. Clair of Glen Arm.

Joe Schwarzer waited an hour in the early morning and got a 10-pound bag of dry ice, but shortly after he got home his power came back on. He took his bag and two from neighbors and returned to the distribution site to hold his own mini-giveaway.

"Why waste this when somebody else needs it?" he asked.

BGE had additional distributions of dry ice planned for both locations at about 6 p.m.

Lynn Flanigan of Towson said she felt she had no choice but to remain in line.

"It is either wait or go home and watch everything melt," she said.

In all, the utility said it gave away more than 1 million pounds of dry ice yesterday in Timonium, Annapolis and two other locations. Although BGE said some customers could be without power for days, the utility pointed out that it had used up its supply of ice and had no more left to distribute.

"We just got overwhelmed," said BGE spokesman Clay Perry.

Of the 645,000 BGE customers without power at the storm's peak - nearly 60 percent of the utility's customers and the largest number in the utility's history - more than a third, or about 220,000, were in Baltimore County. In Anne Arundel County, nearly 180,000 customers were without power; in Baltimore City, about 70,000, and about 64,000 in Howard County. Harford and Carroll counties had about 48,000 and 28,000 customers without power, respectively.

Pepco, which serves the District of Columbia and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was harder hit, with more than 70 percent of its 720,000 customers without power. Officials said the number was the highest in the company's 100-year history.

'Long road to recovery'

Other utilities serving the state reported smaller but still significant outages.

A top executive with Conectiv said 300,000 of its residential and business customers lost power, but electricity for about half that number was restored within 24 hours. The utility serves Maryland's Eastern Shore, Cecil and Harford counties and parts of Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia.

In Montgomery County, Isabel left 225,000 residents - or 60 percent of the county - without power.

The storm knocked out more than half of the county's traffic signals, and 115 of the 190 schools in the county were without power.

"We have a long road to recovery ahead of us," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Melissa Cress spent most of her day at her Silver Spring home. The 48-year old legal secretary lost her power at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, and she was told by the power company that she would not have electricity until next Thursday.

"It's very frustrating," Cress said. "I have a lot of mad neighbors. I'm just glad it's not in the middle of the winter."

BGE officials said areas that lost most of the power were hit by higher winds or had large numbers of trees that fell onto power lines.

At one point, nearly a quarter of the utility's 1,000 three-wire circuits that lead from numerous substations to neighborhood transformers were knocked out.

The utility's recovery operations include some 3,000 workers, nearly two-thirds of them from out of state, divided into about 800 crews, and it is scrambling to get more.

BGE was coordinating the effort from a "storm center" deep inside its operations building in Woodlawn. About three dozen employees, most of them working 12-hour shifts, clicked through computer screens of maps, addresses and data that represented the worst power outage any of them had ever seen.

Using a new and largely untested computer program called the Outage Management System, the center logged and prioritized every telephone call or field report that poured in. By plotting the reports on a map of the electrical transmission lines, the system tried to identify the most critical repairs.

An outage in Carroll County, for instance, was attributed to a failed underground transformer near Westminster. Customers affected: 1. Another outage was traced to a feeder circuit from an electrical substation a little farther west. Customers affected: 2,372.

Public safety facilities such as hospitals and police stations were given top priority, followed by other important customers and whichever repairs might restore the largest number of residential customers. A customer whose service line had disconnected from the house was assigned the lowest priority. Some of those might have to wait a week or more.

BGE officials were still in the "damage-assessment phase" yesterday and said they could make no promises about the schedule for restoring power.

At 2 p.m. yesterday, the list of repair orders was 16,112 entries long. "This is nothing like a normal lightning strike or small storm," said storm center director Stephen J. Woerner. In a typical storm, most power outages are caused by circuit breaker-type devices that disable transformers or other equipment and simply need to be reset, he said. But the damage from Isabel was far more destructive and widespread. "In this storm, every job we get requires a repair," he said.

Better prepared

Supervisor Joe Bunch called up a repair order that began with a 1:21 a.m. telephone call from a man in Clarksville whose power was out. Another 14 nearby customers called within about an hour, and the computer system surmised that a substation on Ten Oaks Road was down, cutting power to 3,541 customers. A crew was dispatched, and power was restored by 2:30 a.m.

Recalling the difficulties encountered after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, BGE officials say they were better prepared than they might have been. In addition to importing additional workers, the utility began asking suppliers to replenish stocks of equipment such as poles and wires.

"In some ways, it's like fighting a war - all of the training, planning, logistics and preparations. And it's unpredictable," said Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr., the BGE vice president in charge of the electrical distribution network. "This isn't going to happen quickly - it's the largest event that we've had. But a lot of effort has gone into making it run as smoothly as possible."

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