Oil trucks roll plumbers swamped

bankers and brokers inconvenienced

January 20, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer Staff writers Jim Haner and Timothy J. Mullaney contributed to this article.

If you make a living selling space heaters, gloves, fuel oil or car batteries, Maryland's severe cold has brought brisk business.

If your business depends on computers to do much more than ring up a sale, life hasn't been so good -- especially after yesterday's temporary power blackouts.

Call it commerce on ice.

"It drives you nuts," said Edward Bootey, a vice president at Carrollton Bank, which has seven branch offices, including two that lost power yesterday.

Power at one branch was down for some time, he said, and weather-related security problems forced the manager to limit access to the bank lobby.

At the Legg Mason Inc. brokerage headquarters in Baltimore, stock quotation machines and personal computers on the trading floor were out for about 10 minutes, along with access to client information.

"But . . life went on. In a brokerage firm, if you have a phone, you're in business," said Geraldine Leder, a Legg Mason official.

Some businesses were forced to close early.

Unable to use computers because of periodic power blackouts, and with heat off in some offices, Columbia Bank closed its nine branches at 2 p.m.

"It's 55 degrees in here," Carol Ridgely, mortgage coordinator at the branch near Columbia Mall, said shortly before the closing. Heat failed after a 10 a.m. blackout, she said.

Hundreds of stores shortened shopping hours to save energy. For example, shoppers were asked to leave the 200-store Columbia Mall at 4 p.m.

The Rouse Co.-owned mall -- normally open until 9:30 p.m. -- closed at 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday because of icy roads.

At the port of Baltimore, electrical outages slowed work, temporarily idling cranes and other equipment. Frozen manholes made it difficult for repair workers to reach underground electrical cables that had triggered the problems.

The Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's five public terminals, worked to remove ice on piers and docks. But sand was in short supply as the state highway system demanded tons.

Other businesses lacked customers.

"The phone rang all day. And everyone canceled," said Renee Berzon at the Loch Raven and Taylor Animal Clinic.

But, with schools and offices closed and people stuck at home, phone service was under a heavy burden.

Bell Atlantic Corp., which provides phone service throughout the mid-Atlantic region, reported an unprecedented strain on its network.

"[People] are either talking about a coming outage, or are without power and talking about having no power," a Bell Atlantic spokesman said.

Plumber John Smyth also faced enormous demand.

"We are swamped. People are calling in a panic," said Mr. Smyth, of Calvert Plumbing and Heating on York Road.

"They complain of frozen and burst pipes and no heat.

"It's been a mess. It's been nuts. I've been a plumber for over 15 years and this is the most miserable working condition I've ever seen."

In Westminster, the Sears auto center sold 70 car batteries between 7 a.m. and about 3 p.m. Most of them were carried home, however, because customers couldn't get their crippled vehicles to the garage.

Cold winds blew news good and bad for Westminster firewood dealer Tony Ottomano. He has a backlog of orders for 50 cords -- about double the usual -- but frozen trees damage his chain saws.

And at the Sunny's Surplus on Wise Avenue in Dundalk, Patrick Brzozowski said, "We're all out of gloves, hats and socks. If it's for cold weather, we're pretty much sold out."

The local convenience store might be out of milk and bread, but the Fin, Fur and Feather Pet Supermarket in Brooklyn Park has plenty of bird seed and doggie treats.

Said store manager Tammy Stader: "You can do without pet supplies for a while."

But you can't do without heat. Not for long.

"I can't remember anything like this since the Christmas season of 1983," said Don Warthen, the third-generation proprietor of the Warthen Fuel Co. in Arbutus. "We're just inundated. We're getting calls from desperate people all over the region."

Mr. Warthen said he and his staff of 29 people have been selling about 100,000 gallons of oil every day since the big freeze began -- up from a typical daily average of 75,000 gallons.

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