Slightly warmer weather and cuts in electrical usage by government agencies and Marylanders yesterday eased power companies back from the brink of system failures that officials called "potentially life-threatening."
But several inches of fluffy snow added to the workload of road crews trying to keep major routes free of ice and to make headway against the deep freeze that kept many residential streets icebound.
The National Weather Service said there was a flicker of light at the end of the white and icy tunnel. The forecast was for a gradual warming trend that could melt away the problems by Monday. Temperatures were expected to reach the 20s today, the 30s tomorrow and -- after the passage of a weak cold front -- the 40s on Monday.
Yesterday's highs in the teens were no cause to break out the Bermuda shorts, but Weather Service forecaster Ken Shaver said, "It felt pretty good out there to me. Even the snow -- nobody got excited about 3 or 4 inches of snow. It's fluffy stuff, so it didn't amount to much. You could just about slam your car door and it was pretty well cleaned off."
But there was no slamming of a door on the dangerous ice underneath the snow or on the continuing miseries of water-main breaks, frozen pipes and injuries from falls.
School closings turned into a weeklong vacation as officials in the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties announced plans not to reopen until Monday.
Federal offices were closed, and many state, city and county government offices, businesses and shopping malls opened late and closed early. The stores and offices also planned to delay opening until 10 a.m. today, as requested by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to conserve power and spread out demand.
BG&E spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said the power emergency was not over even though "it has eased dramatically." Power demand yesterday was much lower than Wednesday's record, he said, but "even with conservation measures in place, the demand for electricity is still near record highs."
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, BG&E recorded its highest demand ever, 6,076 megawatts of electricity, in the face of a 17 mph wind and a temperature of 5 below zero. At the same hour yesterday, with the temperature at 7 and negligible wind, the demand for power was 5,120 megawatts, Mr. Slusark said.
Even so, yesterday's demand wasn't far below the previous all-time winter high of 5,192 megawatts on Dec. 22, 1989.
Mr. Slusark urged customers to keep their thermostats as low as 60 degrees if possible, to turn off unnecessary lights and to restrict their use of gas and electric appliances, including washers, dryers and dishwashers.
More blackouts unlikely
Unless the weather gets drastically colder, Mr. Slusark said, BG&E would not resume Wednesday's controlled outages, which cut power on a rotating basis throughout the utility's network.
Baltimore's public works emergency telephones received about 2,000 calls yesterday for ice and snow problems, and 350 an hour involving water problems -- mostly frozen pipes or water meters -- that could have been avoided by keeping a trickle running out of a sink tap. The daily workload of about 10 water-main breaks is about twice that of a typical winter day, spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said.
Trash pickups delayed
Trash collection continued to be a problem. Ms. Pyatt said crews will make scheduled pickups in front of homes along streets that have been cleared of ice problems, but not in alleys.
Officials of the Baltimore County Bureau of Solid Waste management advised residents to leave their trash out even if it is not picked up on the regular day.
Trucks will get to neighborhoods as soon as possible, they said, adding that recycling pickups would resume Monday and that volunteer recycling centers will be closed over the weekend.
Meanwhile, transit workers spent the day repairing overhead power lines on the Mass Transit Administration's Central Light Rail Line. Ice and cold had caused the wires between the Camden Yards and Westport stations to droop Wednesday.
The system kept its normal schedule, however, as buses ferried passengers at 15-minute intervals between Camden Yards and stations to the south.
MTA officials expected full service to be restored today.
Not everyone was bothered by the continued cold and ice. Take Bob Strohmer, who owns a hardware store on Taylor Avenue in Towson.
Since Monday's storm, he has sold more than 150 plastic toboggans, 100 plastic sledding saucers and thousands of pounds of salt and ice-melting compound.
"It's good for the economy," Mr. Strohmer said. "I've been having record days, believe me."
Marcus Kight, a cashier at the Clark Do-It center in Ellicott City, reported heavy demand for sand and big sales in replacement plumbing supplies, such as elbow joints and pipe insulation tape. "People were desperate for that stuff, he said."