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Md. mops up, but Garrett Co. is still in midst of the storm

The Baltimore area is getting back to normal after Sandy — government offices are open, trains are running again and the lights are on at 95 percent of the homes and businesses that lost power.

But Sandy's dangers linger. A man clearing storm-damaged trees in Annapolis was killed Wednesday by a falling tree, the third Maryland death related to the post-tropical cyclone that had been Hurricane Sandy.

Across the state, many residents took stock of damage and mopped up Wednesday. Evacuated residents returned to Ocean City. Gov. Martin O'Malley visited the resort town and Somerset County on the Eastern Shore, where roads flooded and the schools might remain closed into next week.

But even Wednesday the storm continued in Garrett County — adding more snow to the 2-feet-plus already dumped on the far corner of Western Maryland. And snow could keep falling into Thursday or even early Friday, the National Weather Service warned Wednesday.

Sandy trapped Garrett residents in their homes, blocked snowplows with downed trees, and left most of the county without power Wednesday night. And though the highways are passable, high winds prevented truckers from coming in with supplies to restock bare shelves at major grocers, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said.

"We're kind of moving on to the recovery stage in many other areas, but in Garrett in particular we're still working on life-safety issues," said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the emergency management agency.

It's a taste of the massive problems facing hard-hit New Jersey and New York, where a mix of rain, wind, storm surges and even fire wreaked havoc.

On Wednesday, patients were evacuated from yet another damaged hospital in Manhattan, New York City transit authorities warned that repairs to flooded subway and road tunnels would be costly, and President Barack Obama visited storm-pummeled areas of New Jersey with that state's governor, Chris Christie.

About 4 million customers were without power in the two states late Wednesday afternoon.

In Maryland, outages fell to 46,000 Thursday morning from a peak of 365,000 early Tuesday, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said it brought its tally of customers with restored power to more than 325,000 Thursday morning, with just under 18,000 still without electricity. Wednesday evening, the utility said it believed the "vast majority" would have their power back by Friday night.

"Outages involving smaller numbers of customers and/or significant system damage may extend into the weekend," said BGE spokesman Rob Gould said by email.

Outages caused by the June 29 derecho dragged on for as long as eight days, but that windstorm hit with almost no warning and put about twice as many BGE customers in the dark.

BGE said trees downed by Sandy's winds began taking out parts of the system as early as Sunday, but most of the outages occurred Monday and Tuesday. With help from about 1,900 out-of-state utility workers, BGE sheared back the outage figures Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The ability for advance preparation really made a big difference," said Paula M. Carmody, people's counsel for the state of Maryland, whose office represents utility customers. "We've been glad to see the numbers moving pretty rapidly in terms of the outage restorations."

That's true statewide except in Garrett County, where the heavy, wet snow greatly complicated efforts to restore the electricity. The Potomac Edison Co., which serves the county, said about 15,000 homes and businesses were without power Thursday morning — two-thirds of the population.

In some of Garrett County's small towns, not a single building had power.

Potomac Edison said it expected that its Maryland customers outside of Garrett would all have their power back on by 6 p.m. Saturday, but it's not yet giving an estimate for Garrett — just warning residents not to expect full restoration before next week.

"It's been a challenge to get around," said Todd Meyers, a spokesman for Potomac Edison. "It's going to be a marathon there, not a sprint."

Sandy's damage appears to be worse than what the derecho inflicted on Garrett, he said. The snow is so dense that its weight is toppling even leafless trees — a problem that continued Wednesday, increasing the outage tally for a while even as Potomac Edison worked on repairs. But state and county efforts to plow main roads have helped utility crews get to more locations, Meyers said.

McDonough, with the state's emergency-management agency, said a team of Mennonite volunteers is working with the National Guard and road crews to get downed trees off roads so the snow can be cleared.

In the Baltimore region, Baltimore County had the largest number of outages in the area as of Thursday morning — almost 8,000. The highest share of customers without power remained in Harford, almost 3 percent as of Thursday morning.

Chris Schlehr, the town administrator for Bel Air in Harford County, said Wednesday afternoon that the number of residents without power was sharply down from about 60 percent Monday night. That afternoon, traffic lights were out at one major intersection in town — police were directing traffic there, at Fulford Avenue and South Main Street — and Schlehr hoped that would be remedied before Thursday morning.

"We're just working hard to clean up the debris at this point and get on with business," he said.

For customers with wells, losing power means losing access to water, too. That was the problem bedeviling Michael and Janon Fisher on Wednesday as they crossed the 48-hour mark without electricity. They have 10 horses in need of water — the Fishers train and breed on a farm in Baltimore County — and they've run out of what they put aside in barrels and buckets before Sandy hit.

Janon Fisher has been driving to a nearby stream and filling buckets there, no easy task. The Fishers say they've found the downed wires that cut power on their road, but BGE warned them Tuesday that the electricity might not be back on until Thursday or Friday.

"In my youth, BGE would come out the same day and fix it and that would be the end of it," Michael Fisher said. "And now you have to wait."

Betsy Spiker Holcomb, who lives just outside the town of McHenry in Garrett County, is counting on a very long wait indeed. She lost power Monday evening and figures her outage could last more than a week.

She pulled her food out of her refrigerators, packed it into coolers and buried them in the snow, so she thinks she'll get through without spoilage. And because she has a gas-powered stove and fireplace, she can cook the food and stay warm.

But it's only because her brother owns a tractor with a snowblower that she was able to get out of her driveway. And when she crept down the mountain she lives on, navigating nearly impassable roads, she wondered if she should have stayed put.

"The roads are really bad," said Spiker Holcomb, a real estate agent who specializes in Deep Creek Lake vacation homes. "A lot of customers from your area are calling to check on their homes, but we haven't been able to get to them."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector and Reuters contributed to this article.

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