Ernesto's wind gusts punched away at Md.

Thousands remain without power today

September 03, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon and Gadi Dechter | Stephanie Desmon and Gadi Dechter,sun reporters

What was left of the storm once called Ernesto was gone yesterday afternoon, but utility workers and residents in parts of the state were busy cleaning up the damage caused by its steady rains and more vigorous than expected gusts.

About 44,000 homes remained without power last night, with electricity providers saying it could be until tomorrow before the last lights can be turned on. In low-lying parts of Southern Maryland and in sections of the Eastern Shore, minor flooding, tree damage and downed power lines were the legacy of this season's first major Atlantic storm.

"It packed a pretty good punch as tropical systems go for the Baltimore/Washington area," said Todd Miner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications group. "It wasn't of the caliber of some of the storms in the recent past. It was certainly no [Tropical Storm] Isabel that created mass flooding. But when you're dumping two to five inches of rain and winds are gusting over 50 [mph], that's a pretty good storm."

Basements in bayside communities of Anne Arundel County needed to be pumped out, and boats poorly secured by people who didn't expect the storm to amount to much were sent adrift. The streets around the Annapolis City Dock were partially submerged.

In most of the rest of Maryland, though, the one-time hurricane became little more than a soggy mess that brought much-needed rain to brown lawns and wilting shrubs thirsting for water after a drier-than-average August.

The dreariness and drizzle of yesterday is expected to give way today to sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. The Labor Day weekend may have gotten off to a waterlogged start, but tomorrow's weather should be dry.

Ernesto became a hurricane a week ago, causing damage in Haiti and Cuba before weakening as it moved up into Florida and beyond as a tropical storm.

It dropped up to a foot of rain in parts of Virginia and North Carolina on its way up the East Coast and was blamed for five deaths in those two states, where it also caused flooding that forced hundreds from their homes and left many without electricity.

By yesterday, the storm was history, but western New York and the lower Great Lakes were getting related rains.

Winds in Maryland turned out to be stronger than anticipated, with gale-strength gusts as high as 62 mph recorded on the Eastern Shore on Friday.

Those unexpected squalls wreaked havoc on power lines and left more than 100,000 BGE customers without power at the peak of the storm. Other utilities in the state also reported large outages.

"It's really a story of trees and limbs and power lines," said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who spent part of yesterday visiting flooded residents in the Bayside Beach neighborhood along the bay.

Anne Arundel County BGE customers bore the brunt of the outages, and, despite assurances that most power would be on by tonight with a few dark spots remaining into Labor Day, Owens said people were already unhappy to have endured 24 hours without electricity.

The feeling among many left cleaning up yesterday was this: It was a pretty serious storm, worse than hyped in some cases, but nothing compared to the flooding and devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Isabel three years ago this month. That has become the storm most use as a benchmark. "It just doesn't look like it turned out to be that bad," said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

"It came close to being trouble, came real close," said Sam Thompson, who owns a boat repair yard in St. Mary's County, not far from the foot of the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge. The winds on Friday night, he said, appeared to be blowing harder than they did during Isabel, but the 50 boats in his custody appeared to have escaped damage. Point Lookout State Park, meanwhile, at the county's southern tip, was closed until further notice because of flooding.

On the other side of the bridge in Solomons Island, the large Tiki Bar - famous for hosting springtime parties for more than 10,000 revelers - was under 2 1/2 feet of water at high tide late Friday, said owner Terry Clarke. Water also flooded several motel rooms on his property, said Clarke, who estimated cleaning and replacement costs of roughly $40,000.

"I didn't think it was going to be this bad," he said yesterday morning.

But none of that would hold him back. He promised that the main bar would be open by noon.

Kim Boquel got a good view of the winds Friday afternoon when the organizer of the 32nd annual Solomons Island Festival found herself alone in her van on the festival grounds.

"I was sitting out here. It's thundering, the van's shaking, and then the port-a-potties blew over," she recalled.

Yesterday morning, the portable restrooms were still on their sides, but Boquel had been joined by about 20 crafts and food vendors, who were busy righting tents and hoping the rainy skies would clear and lure people to the two-day event. "We've never canceled," she said.

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