Irene damage closes area schools, stymies efforts to restore power

Schools throughout the region are closed today and hundreds of thousands of families and businesses remain without power as Marylanders clean up after Hurricane Irene.

The transportation grid was coming back to life, and stores were restocking shelves that had been depleted in the runup to the storm. But with high winds continuing to topple trees Sunday, electric utilities warned it could take days to restore power to all customers.


The storm was blamed for one death in Maryland. A woman was killed in Queenstown when a falling tree sent a chimney crashing through a house, according to reports.

As the massive system moved north on Sunday, causing severe flooding in upstate New York and New England, Marylanders did get some positive news: The much-feared storm surge in low-lying areas such as Fells Point in Baltimore and City Dock in Annapolis failed to materialize, sparing the region the devastating flooding inflicted by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.


The storm could still affect the morning commute. Officials warned that light rail passengers can expect delays today due to track damage at the northern end of the line. They said they would supplement the service with shuttle buses.

And at BWI-Marshall Airport, travelers might encounter delays or cancellations resulting from changes in service at airports in New York and Boston, a spokesman warned.

Though it appears to be too early to assess the storm's cost, the federal government will help with the tab. President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in Maryland, enabling the state to tap federal assets to supplement its response.

Supermarkets that had been emptied of bottled water and other emergency supplies, or that lost power to refrigerate perishable food, now are receiving new deliveries.

School officials cancelled class Monday in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.

Monday was to be the first day of the school year in all of those districts but Anne Arundel, where classes started last week. It's the first time in memory that a hurricane washed out the first day of the school year.

"I do not recall in the last four decades a closing on the opening day," said Ronald Peiffer, a retired state education official.

One of the reasons schools were closed was a lack of electricity.

At the height of the outages, 850,000 customers were without power, a Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman said. Hundreds of thousands remained without power Sunday night, spokesman Edward McDonough said.

A spokesman for altimore Gas & Electric Co. said Sunday evening the company was still gauging how long restoration would take and probably would not offer a firm timeframe until Monday.

"We're seeing some horrific damage in certain places," spokesman Rob Gould said. "We're still homing in on a timeframe, and we don't want to give out false deadlines."

Gould said BGE had encountered about 620,000 total outages by late Sunday afternoon, fewer than the 790,000 the company faced during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. But he said the number could rise as damaged trees fall because of the rain-soaked ground.

About 400,000 BGE customers remained without power Sunday evening, the company said.

The storm downed hundreds of power lines across the state and caused significant damage to the "feeders" that distribute power to large groups of homes. Gould said blocks of 2,000 and 3,000 homes would regain power in the next day and that the utility would then turn to the slower process of repairing damage at individual homes.

At Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland, workers were laboring Sunday to bring a nuclear reactor back online after it shut down automatically late Saturday.

Plant officials believe the shutdown was triggered when a large piece of aluminum siding struck a transformer. They announced an "unusual event" for reactor unit 1, the least serious of the four emergency classifications used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Spokesman Mark Sullivan said Unit 1 remained offline while workers inspected the transformer to ensure it is in "safe and workable condition." A second reactor was working fine at 100 percent power, and the plant remains stable, Sullivan said.

He said it was not clear when Unit 1 would resume operations.

Perhaps the biggest relief in Maryland was the absence of significant flooding in communities along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. While the storm dumped up to a foot of rain in parts of the Eastern Shore and 4.5 inches in Baltimore, areas that typically flood even in heavy thunderstorms did not do so.

In Baltimore, Fells Point and the Inner Harbor were spared, as was City Dock in Annapolis and low-lying communities such as Bowleys Quarters in eastern Baltimore County.

Unlike in Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, Irene's "winds pushed the water out of the bay, instead of up it," said Bob Maloney, the head of the Baltimore's emergency management office.

"We were very lucky," Maloney said.

Elkridge resident Nicholas Badart counted himself among the fortunate after a tree invaded his bedroom before dawn Sunday. It was just after 3 a.m. when the 300-year-old ash, whipped by heavy winds and destabilized by saturated soil, crashed into his second-story bedroom.

"I heard this rumble, and then a creaking noise, and I was half asleep, and I thought, 'Oh no,' and woof, the whole roof came in," said Badart, who turned 74 Saturday.

As the tree smashed through the roof, the ceiling fan fell and struck Badart's wife in the head. Lisa Badart, 55, was not seriously injured.

The tree trunk thudded to a halt about a foot from the bedside, and the Badarts were trapped.

When emergency personnel arrived, the damage was so extensive that rescuers needed half an hour to find the couple.

"They're saying, 'Well, where are you?'" said Lisa Badart, who was treated at St. Agnes Hospital for a large bump on her head.

"It truly was a miracle," her husband said. "If it had been this much closer to Lisa," he said, holding his hands a foot apart, "she would have been dead."

Fallen trees littered the region. In Baltimore City alone, more than 400 downed trees were blocking 200 streets on Sunday morning.

Baltimoreans who ventured into Patterson Park early Sunday had to push through howling winds. The fountain near the Pagoda sprayed sideways in the gusts as people stepped gingerly over fallen branches.

Pet owners walking stir-crazy dogs surveyed the destruction, which included at least one grand tree that had toppled onto the grass near the lake. People gathered, shaking their heads and snapping pictures. Swollen with rain water, the lake sloshed over the retaining wall.

The sun came out by midday Sunday. But lingering effects of the storm surfaced in unexpected ways. There were reports of gasoline shortages and closed gas stations because of a lack of electricity.

A BP station in the 900 block of West St. in Annapolis saw steady business Sunday as patrons complained to the store manager that other stations had run out of gas.


"They had been to three or four places before coming here," manager Kiran Kafle said.


Aaron Meisner, a 45-year-old resident of Mount Washington in North Baltimore, said he drove around looking for gas, but stations along Liberty Road north of Northern Parkway were closed.

"You'd pull in and the pumps would be off," he said. He finally found fuel at a station at Falls Road and Northern Parkway.

Meisner also stopped at a supermarket in Reisterstown that he said was operating on generator power. He said the store did not sell meat or dairy or other refrigerated items — just dry goods, such as canned food and pastas, he said.

"It was very sparsely populated," he said. "That was odd."

Officials in Southern Maryland, which saw some of the worst effects of the storm, were working to assess damage on Sunday. St. Mary's County closed its schools and issued water-use restrictions.

Trooper Gary Thompson, of the Maryland State Police's Leonardtown barracks, said the area is hampered by felled trees, standing water, downed power lines and debris obstructing the roads.

"We got hit pretty good down here," said Sgt. Brent Parrott, of the Calvert County Sheriff's Department. He said residents who were evacuated had not been given permission to return as of Sunday evening. "We had issued an evacuation for anyone who lives within 100 feet of any cliff because of the anticipated wind and rain."

Though Irene wrought damage up and down Maryland, the National Weather Services said Saturday that it didn't appear that the storm technically made landfall in the state as a hurricane.

"The definition says that the center of circulation [eye] of the system has to cross the coastline ... and preliminary indications are that the center of Irene stayed offshore of MD," Steve Zubrick, science officer at the weather service's regional forecast office in Sterling, Va., wrote in an email.

Zubrick said "later assessments might change that view," but for now the weather service recognizes only two hurricane landfalls by Irene — one on Saturday at Cape Lookout in North Carolina, and the other on Sunday at Little Egg Inlet in New Jersey.

Commuters could be in for some aggravation Monday.

The Maryland Transit Administration planned shuttle buses to ferry passengers between North Avenue and Hunt Valley, he said.

Officials at BWI-Marshall were not anticipating unusually long lines Monday despite the chance of delays and cancellations. But airport spokesman Jonathan Dean advised travelers to check with airlines on the status of their flights.

Flights at BWI resumed Sunday,which came as something of a pleasant surprise for some.

Steven Hall, 35, still had no power at his Reisterstown home Sunday afternoon. But his 6-year-old son, Tony, was flying back to Baltimore on Southwest after visiting his grandmother in San Francisco. Southwest had canceled the boy's original flight Saturday.

"I didn't think he would be here until Monday," Hall said outside the airport.

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker, Steve Kilar, Frank D. Roylance, Liz Bowie, Erica L. Green, Jill Rosen and Susan Reimer contributed to this article, as did Kevin Rector of the Howard County Times.