Powerless in a Baltimore summer

When BGE turns off utilities, life revolves around batteries, ice

June 27, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

It's a muggy evening in East Baltimore, and the sun has finally packed it in after the longest day of the year. All along Ashland Avenue, residents are flicking on radios and electric fans. Glimmers of light appear in the windows.

But not at Penny Lyons' rowhouse. There, no light shines from inside. The typical domestic sounds of television and stereo are absent.

There is no electricity in her two-story Formstone home, and there hasn't been since April, when power was cut off for failure to pay the utility. Gas service has also stopped.

"If I buy milk, I put it in the cooler. We don't let it go past a couple of days," said Lyons, 36, who lives there with her husband, Alfred, and eight children and grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 months to 18 years. Her brother-in-law and a female friend are also staying there.

They are among the Baltimoreans who cannot refrigerate food, use hot water, run air conditioners or iron clothing because of utility debts.

Precise numbers are impossible to come by, but indications are that several thousand people in the city have lost power or are in danger of losing it. More than 25,000 city residents seek emergency power funds each year.

Living without electricity means being cut off from many of the appliances and amenities of modern life. It can also be extremely dangerous.

On June 10, a candle caused a blaze in a West Baltimore rowhouse that had been without electricity for months. A 53-year-old woman and three of her grandchildren died in the fire.

Penny Lyons and her family say they are in this predicament partly because someone on the street illegally siphoned power from their wires, running up their bill.

Though the Lyonses are not paupers, money is tight. Only Alfred, a mechanic, and his steel worker brother are employed. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cut the family off when it could offer only $250 toward a bill of $2,215.89, Lyons said.

BGE spokeswoman Brenda L. Pettigrew said she could not comment on particular cases without customer permission but that partial payments aren't enough to restore power to a home that has been cut off.

"BGE is able to make payment arrangements with customers when they call before service is turned off," Pettigrew said. "When services are turned off, you must pay the full balance."

The Lyons' home is illuminated by a few small, battery-powered incandescent lamps. "It's better than candles," said Lyons' friend Linda Jones, 44.

Light and shadow

When all of the lamps are burning in the Lyons family room, there is a silver aquarium glow that shines starkly on the faces of children, on the framed photographs of relatives, on the paintings of Jesus that hang from the wood-paneled walls.

The light does not reach far, though, and the rear of the large room is shrouded in darkness. To go back there, Lyons brings one of the lamps. Behind the room is a tiny kitchen with a useless stove and a faucet that produces only cold water.

The refrigerator and freezer are packed with bags of ice, which Lyons buys almost every day. Even with all the ice, the family must shop for food and eat out more frequently than it otherwise might, further stretching its financial resources.

Lyons brings her lamp up the staircase. Midway, the air begins to burn with the heat that has built up on a June day. The upper floor is nearly pitch dark, with the range of the lamp extending only a few feet in any direction.

Asked about the consequences of living without electricity, Lyons said her biggest concerns are for the children. Her 9-year-old daughter, Patrice, has asthma, and Lyons is worried that her condition could worsen if she doesn't have access to an electric vapor machine.

Baths and television

Other concerns are more mundane. Because there's no hot water at home, bathing involves going to the home of a family friend.

"I know they get tired of it," Lyons said of the children. "They like to take baths daily. We can't really do it daily."

Other deprivations strike even closer to a child's heart.

"They really like television, and they come in and get a little bored," Lyons said.

How does a modern family survive this?

"We sit together and talk. In some ways, it's brought us closer together," she said.

Her brother-in-law, Melvin Lyons, 38, said the lack of electricity makes the house feel even more vulnerable in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

"It's just a little scarier when people come to the door at night and there is no inside light," he said.

A darkened home gives a potentially dangerous appearance of vacancy. Linda Jones said that shortly after the power was cut off, they noticed that someone was trying to peer into the home through the mail slot.

Penny Lyons said the family is trying to save money to pay off the bill but that that she doesn't know when power will be restored.

"I believe that God is going to help us," Lyons said. "That's all I can say. That's where I get my strength from."

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