Storm hampers effort to restore power

The rainstorm that hit the Baltimore area on the heels of Tropical Storm Isabel plunged 56,000 more people into darkness and made Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s effort to restore power to all customers that much harder.

But it is too soon to tell whether the damage from the high winds and heavy rains Monday night will cause the utility to miss its goal of restoring power to all customers by late Friday, BGE officials said yesterday.

The latest storm knocked tree limbs down into wires, causing scattered outages, mostly in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, officials said. BGE got extra help yesterday from an additional 80 to 100 utility workers who had already been scheduled to help out after finishing Isabel-related work in Pennsylvania.

More than 4,200 workers from BGE and out-of-state utilities are now in the field since the tropical storm hit the state last week, cutting power to more than half of BGE's 1.1 million electric customers. As of yesterday, service had been restored to all but 117,000 customers.

"It's a bit early to determine whether the new outages will impact the Friday restoration date," said Sharon Sasada, a BGE spokeswoman.

But the additional outages can only add to the company's storm-related expense, which could top $60 million, according to Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for BGE parent Constellation Energy Group.

BGE will incur costs for employee overtime; housing, feeding, expenses and wages for out-of-state crews; and the replacement of miles of wires and dozens of transformers and utility poles. As of yesterday the company had replaced 131 poles, 101 transformers, 1,402 fuses and 1,203 sections of overhead wires.

BGE could ask the Maryland Public Service Commission for an increase even though its rates are frozen until 2006 under its electric deregulation settlement.

A utility is allowed to seek recovery of "extraordinary costs resulting from ... a natural disaster " if it can show the expense constituted a "material impairment" of its finances, said Chrys Wilson, a spokeswoman for the PSC.

"We didn't seek recovery" after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Gould said, "and, while we're aware the clause permits recovery of extraordinary costs, it is unlikely that we will exercise that option in the case of Isabel."

For now, he said, the company is focused on repairs.

"No matter what, we have to restore power," he said. "The impact on Constellation is something we'll have to assess based on the overall storm financials." Constellation had net income last year of $525.6 million.

BGE's restoration effort is being staged from a storm center in Baltimore County, and crews depart daily about 6 a.m. from four staging areas around the region.

The additional outages on Monday could mean that some customers might have to wait longer to get their power back, Sasada said.

She said areas with downed or sparking wires have first priority, followed by critical care areas, such as hospitals. The next priority is bringing back the largest number of people at one time, followed by people whose power has been out the longest.

But yesterday, some customers who say they have a special medical-needs designation from BGE said they never got the priority service that designation was supposed to bring.

Janet Westhill-Thomas, 49, of Northeast Baltimore, said she is scared for her son, Michael, 14, a severe asthmatic. When Michael suffers asthma attacks, Westhill-Thomas usually administers a breathing treatment with an electronic device the family keeps in their basement unit of the St. Georges Apartments.

But the complex hasn't had electricity since about 5:30 p.m. Thursday. And the medication it administers requires refrigeration, Westhill-Thomas said.

Michael, a ninth-grader at Merganthaler Vocational Technical High, has had three asthma attacks since the lights went out - one of which required a $200 visit to Good Samaritan Hospital, she said.

So far, she said, BGE has not been able to tell her when service will be restored even though her son's status is noted in its computers.

"They say 'we'll get there when we get there, we're working as hard as we can.' They're just running through the script," she said.

Another customer with medical problems, Merlene Wilkerson, 89, of Sparks, lost her power sometime overnight as the storm raged Thursday and Friday. Wilkerson also said she is on BGE's "red tag" medical priority list. She suffers from emphysema, which she usually treats with an electronic breathing device of her own; is blind in one eye from glaucoma; and is fighting to retain vision in the other eye after some surgery led to a serious infection.

Wilkerson, too, is frustrated by BGE's inability to tell her when it plans to restore her power: With her reduced vision, when the batteries in her lantern ebb, "I sit here, in the dark."

BGE officials said that with the magnitude of this storm, there is no way to single out specific households for restoration of their service - even if that household includes people with the company's "special medical needs" designation. With that in mind, as the storm was approaching, the company advised people who relied upon electronic medical devices to make alternative plans, or even to go to a hospital, to ensure their health.

And the company will not make promises or predictions about restoring service that it cannot meet, officials said. In many cases, the damage has been so widespread that no predictions can yet be made.

"Everything we tell the customer is the absolute truth," said Betty Ferguson, manager of BGE's customer care. "We've been honest in telling those with medical needs that they might need to go somewhere else [until their service can be restored]. You just cannot single out a single household with a storm of this mammoth magnitude."

Staff writer William Patalon III contributed to this article.

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