Power outages prompt inquiries

State legislators and regulators moved yesterday to question utilities about the power outages that persist for tens of thousands of Marylanders nearly a week after Tropical Storm Isabel tore through the region.

Virtually all schools and roads that were closed in Isabel's wake are open this morning. But 73,000 customers of the region's two major power suppliers - Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. - were without electricity last night.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of a committee that has oversight over the utilities, said he wants an explanation of what caused the widespread outages and why it took so long to restore power.

"I understand this was not a conventional storm," said Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the House Economic Matters Committee. "I'm not bringing the utilities in to beat them up."

The Maryland Public Service Commission announced it will start its own investigation into the utilities' response to Isabel and to power losses from a series of August thunderstorms.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. believes the inquiries "will be appropriate and helpful," said his spokesman Henry Fawell.

"The governor does appreciate the efforts the utility companies have made," Fawell said. "We've literally seen lives lost; it's not easy for them. He will continue to both help them, and hold their feet to the fire, to meet his number one goal of seeing electricity restored."

Spokesman Robert L. Gould said BGE is sticking to its target of late Friday for restoring power to all customers - except some in flooded-out areas.

The work is tougher now, Gould said. Earlier this week, BGE could bring large blocks of customers back on line with one or a few repairs; now each outage presents a unique problem. "We're in the house-to-house combat mode."

Gould also said that BGE "will continue to work cooperatively with the PSC, to thoroughly assess our response efforts. We are confident that the PSC will be well-satisfied with BGE's preparedness and response during this restoration effort."

Spokesman Tom Welle said Pepco "welcomes" reviews by any legislative or oversight agency. "We are a regulated entity and that's part of doing business, to expect reviews or this kind of scrutiny."

Government aid

Meanwhile, government officials stepped up efforts yesterday to help storm victims. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced that owners of storm-damaged homes and businesses in the county will get property tax rebates in the coming weeks.

State law allows for reassessments when a home or business is destroyed, but the owner ordinarily needs to request it. In this case, state assessors and Baltimore County inspectors will examine damaged structures within the next week, and the county will send refund checks a few weeks after that.

"Residents shouldn't have to study the Maryland code to realize what is owed to them in an emergency," Smith said.

By yesterday afternoon, more than 1,700 storm victims in Baltimore County alone had signed up for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and hundreds more took advantage of food and water distribution centers.

Other attempts by the county government to help were less popular - few people had shown up for free showers at three east-side schools as of yesterday evening.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens announced that a team of workers will visit homeowners to offer damage assessments, advice on repairs, insurance counseling and other services.

And as a result of the federal declaration of emergency in Maryland, residents who lost their jobs because of the storm - but who would otherwise be ineligible - can claim unemployment benefits, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said.

But across Maryland, people weren't waiting for government aid. They were pitching in to help neighbors.

In Deale, on Drum Point in southern Anne Arundel County, the Marshall family lost their 200-year-old, two-story home to Isabel. What was left of the second floor remained in their living room yesterday. A computer, office chair and filing cabinet were the only remnants of Faye Marshall's home office.

Some neighbors have fished Marshall family photos out of nearby waterways, and are drying them and assembling them into a photo album. Neighbors have been bringing food and water, and offering other assistance each day.

"It's just unbelievable how people are helping, even people we've never met before," said Faye Marshall, 63.

Millions in damages

The financial costs of Isabel were coming into focus yesterday. Officials in area counties didn't know yet how much the cleanup would cost in overtime, but some made preliminary guesses at property damage.

The initial FEMA estimate of damage in Anne Arundel County is $500 million, not counting shoreline and piers. In Harford County, where Havre de Grace and other waterfront communities were hit hard, damage estimates have ticked up to about $20 million.

Isabel did about $13 million in damage to the state's 93 parks and wildlife areas, said Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mike Slattery. Hardest hit were the Dundee Marina at Gunpowder Falls State Park, where water came up 7 feet inside the main building, and Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary's County, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay.

In Dorchester County, where as many as 650 homes suffered water damage, officials say the total could easily surpass $20 million. "A lot of old homes were built very low to the ground and there's only so much you can do," Commissioner Glenn L. Bramble said.

Fewer than 10 roads in Baltimore County, and just eight in Anne Arundel, remained closed because of the storm. Three roads in Carroll County were closed - Baumgardner Road near Keysville, Bethel Road in Woodbine and McKinstrys Mill Road near New Windsor - because of flooding from Monday night's heavy rain.

As workers mopped mud from classrooms, principals assessed damages and district staffers monitored road conditions, the Baltimore County school system planned to open all but one of its 163 schools this morning. Only Wellwood International in Pikesville is not scheduled to reopen; a transformer blew yesterday while the school tried ratcheting up to full power.

In Baltimore, Ashburton Elementary/Middle School, Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School and Edgecombe Circle Elementary remained closed yesterday; the power also went out in the cafeteria at Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary during the day. An announcement of any continued closings in the city will be made at 5 a.m. today. All schools in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties will be open today.

But life is far from normal in communities ravaged by the storm.

With the help of two friends, Emil Kordish, who rented a small, one-story cottage just yards from the Chesapeake Bay in Bowleys Quarters, was cleaning out his few remaining belongings yesterday. He is not planning to return.

"The stuff I lost I can't replace," he said. "But financially, I'm OK."

He even lost his car - a 2003 Honda Accord with less than 1,400 miles on it - the first new car he had ever owned.

Staff writers Lynn Anderson, Laura Barnhardt, Liz Bowie, Lane Harvey Brown, Julie Bykowicz, Larry Carson, Ryan Davis, Chris Guy, Molly Knight, Linda Linley, David Nitkin, Jonathan D. Rockoff, Ted Shelsby, Jason Song, Candus Thomson, Stephanie Tracy and Childs Walker contributed to this article.