In Garrett County, snow is normal but Sandy was not

OAKLAND — — Linda Kemphfer held out overnight as the power, heat and water went out, but grew frightened as it became apparent she was trapped in her home deep in the woods of Garrett County.

"We were going to freeze to death," she said of her decision to call 911 this week as superstorm Sandy continued to add to the snow mounds piling up around her. "It was stressful, worrying whether you're going to get out or not."


By the time three members of the National Guard arrived on snowmobiles, after having cut a path through fallen trees to her home with a chain saw, it was nearly dark, she said. She and her son grabbed a few belongings and climbed on behind their rescuers, leaving their home and two pet birds behind.

They haven't been back since.


On Thursday morning, Kemphfer, 58, and her son Cody, 22, kept warm at a shelter in Oakland, as emergency personnel worked around them and local officials briefed Gov. Martin O'Malley on their needs during the disaster.

"My whole state's now Garrett County," O'Malley told them, stressing his prioritization of Maryland's westernmost, blizzard-buried county after having toured and ensured emergency resources for hard-hit, evacuated Eastern Shore communities like Crisfield.

Wet Hurricane Sandy ran into a brute of a cold front bearing polar air here, and together they threw down more than two feet of snow — burying roads, downing hundreds of trees and knocking out power to tens of thousands of people across the county and in parts of neighboring West Virginia.

Residents in these mountains are used to snow — they had nearly 300 inches in 2010 — but this storm was different. Longtime residents say they've never seen a storm like this.

"This storm hit everybody unprepared," said Julius Kinser, who arrived at the shelter on Thursday after the wood stove that he and his wife were using to heat their home after the electricity went out became clogged, filling the house with smoke. "They knew it was coming, but they didn't know what we were going to get."

O'Malley said snow was forecast, but not in the form it came — heavy, wet and with the force to take down the county's power grid.

"It was blue," Kinser said, of the wall of winter that came down like a curtain on Monday and Tuesday. "Have you ever seen blue snow?"

By Thursday, main roads were plowed, but many homes and businesses — even here in the county seat — were still without power.


The heavy snow has made restoring power a slog, said Todd Meyers, a spokesman for Potomac Edison, the county's electric utility.

"It's a very heavy, dense, thick snow that clings to branches and clings to trees and doesn't let go," he said. That weight pulls branches and whole trees down onto lines.

On Thursday morning, power still was being knocked out faster than the company's crews could restore it, but Meyers said things had been brought under control by evening. About 12,500 customers were without power as of 7 p.m. Thursday.

He could not estimate when all service would be restored, but acknowledged that many Garrett county residents rely on electric pumps for their wells, and some have been stuck inside their homes without power for days.

"It's more than an electrical problem here, it's become a public safety issue because many of the residents are snowbound," Meyers said.

Robert Paugh, 83, who "grew up under kerosene lamps" in the area, said the storm had taken a toll unlike any in recent memory. As he shopped at the A.D. Naylor & Co. hardware store, new boots and gloves in his basket, he sighed, unable to find the lamp oil or batteries he really needed.


Across the county, government offices, schools, libraries and courts were closed. Back roads remained unplowed, homes inaccessible. Sporting events, livestock events and social gatherings were canceled. Water and sewage treatment plants operated on generators, cell towers weren't working and many residents weren't either — accepting that their normal activities had come to a grinding halt.

The local McDonald's and other restaurants with power had lines wrapped around their parking lots, boxed in by tall mounds of plowed snow. At the Loch Lynn Restaurant, in the neighboring town of Loch Lynn Heights, the breakfast and lunch crowds were heavy, said Bridgette Imhoff, who runs the business with her mother, Sheila O'Neill.

"We've been busy," said Imhoff, noting most customers were looking for a hot meal and a chance to vent about downed trees and power outages. "That's what it's been — how long they've been out, how they're tired of it. I feel so bad."

At the Oakland Pizza Hut, Mark and Jessi Phillips ate lunch with their children Mark Jr., 5, and Mary Catherine, 4.

Their 300-acre cattle farm, 23 miles away in West Virginia, had been under three feet of snow and without power since about 6 p.m. Monday. On Wednesday, Mark Phillips took a 50-gallon barrel and all the cans the family could find, then filled them with gas to power the farm's generator.

Jessi Phillips said the time in town had helped her settle down after the storm shook up her nerves.


"It was like rifle shots, one after another," she said of the many trees that fell on the farm Monday night. "It was just terrifying."

To make it to town, the family had to cut their way out with chain saws, she said.

The pizza lunch was a break from it all, they said.

"I'm getting tired of shoveling," Mark Jr. said.

Local officials said their main concern Thursday was accounting for the region's many elderly residents and restoring electrical power to critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants.

They also asked O'Malley about the costs of the recovery, saying their small-town budgets won't be able to cover the expense.


Carolyn Corley, the mayor of Loch Lynn Heights, population 562, said there is "no way" local towns can carry the burden alone.

"I can't even imagine what this bill is going to be for cleanup," she said, noting the number of trees down and the fact that all the local towns share one wood chipper.

O'Malley tried to impress upon the local officials that he would be bringing all state resources possible to Garrett County to help them dig out.

"As this hurricane got out of our way, all of our attention went to Garrett County," he said. "There are a lot of forces coming here."

A team of 60 from the Urban Search and Rescue team left Baltimore on Thursday to help with relief efforts.

They will help clear debris and fallen trees, conduct searches for and checks on those affected by the storm, and assist in evacuation efforts. The team pulls members from emergency response agencies from Baltimore and seven surrounding counties.


The team and Baltimore City also are providing chain saws, flashlights, packaged meals, bottled water, power generators and fuel to Garrett County.

"This has quickly become a serious public safety situation for the people of Garrett County, and we all have a responsibility to assist in any way we can," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

Throughout the day Thursday, officials with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and other local and state agencies worked alongside the National Guard rescuing people from their homes and taking them to shelters set up in government buildings and churches.

Many in town, even those who'd been through a lot, said they were thankful for the help — and that the damage wasn't worse.

"I'm just so glad I got here when I did," said Bonnie Mahaffey, 88, who arrived at the shelter after a "hellish time," having almost run out of oxygen when the electricity in her home went out and her breathing machine stopped. "You wouldn't think in this day and age that there wouldn't be electricity somewhere."

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.