Irene damage closes area schools, stymies efforts to restore power

Storm blamed for one Eastern Shore death, but flooding not as bad as expected

August 28, 2011|By Scott Calvert, Gus G. Sentementes, Peter Hermann and Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

Schools throughout the region are closed today and hundreds of thousands of families and businesses remain without power as Marylanders clean up after Hurricane Irene.

The transportation grid was coming back to life, and stores were restocking shelves that had been depleted in the runup to the storm. But with high winds continuing to topple trees Sunday, electric utilities warned it could take days to restore power to all customers.

The storm was blamed for one death in Maryland. A woman was killed in Queenstown when a falling tree sent a chimney crashing through a house, according to reports.

As the massive system moved north on Sunday, causing severe flooding in upstate New York and New England, Marylanders did get some positive news: The much-feared storm surge in low-lying areas such as Fells Point in Baltimore and City Dock in Annapolis failed to materialize, sparing the region the devastating flooding inflicted by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

The storm could still affect the morning commute. Officials warned that light rail passengers can expect delays today due to track damage at the northern end of the line. They said they would supplement the service with shuttle buses.

And at BWI-Marshall Airport, travelers might encounter delays or cancellations resulting from changes in service at airports in New York and Boston, a spokesman warned.

Though it appears to be too early to assess the storm's cost, the federal government will help with the tab. President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in Maryland, enabling the state to tap federal assets to supplement its response.

Supermarkets that had been emptied of bottled water and other emergency supplies, or that lost power to refrigerate perishable food, now are receiving new deliveries.

School officials cancelled class Monday in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.

Monday was to be the first day of the school year in all of those districts but Anne Arundel, where classes started last week. It's the first time in memory that a hurricane washed out the first day of the school year.

"I do not recall in the last four decades a closing on the opening day," said Ronald Peiffer, a retired state education official.

One of the reasons schools were closed was a lack of electricity.

At the height of the outages, 850,000 customers were without power, a Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman said. Hundreds of thousands remained without power Sunday night, spokesman Edward McDonough said.

A spokesman for altimore Gas & Electric Co. said Sunday evening the company was still gauging how long restoration would take and probably would not offer a firm timeframe until Monday.

"We're seeing some horrific damage in certain places," spokesman Rob Gould said. "We're still homing in on a timeframe, and we don't want to give out false deadlines."

Gould said BGE had encountered about 620,000 total outages by late Sunday afternoon, fewer than the 790,000 the company faced during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. But he said the number could rise as damaged trees fall because of the rain-soaked ground.

About 400,000 BGE customers remained without power Sunday evening, the company said.

The storm downed hundreds of power lines across the state and caused significant damage to the "feeders" that distribute power to large groups of homes. Gould said blocks of 2,000 and 3,000 homes would regain power in the next day and that the utility would then turn to the slower process of repairing damage at individual homes.

At Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland, workers were laboring Sunday to bring a nuclear reactor back online after it shut down automatically late Saturday.

Plant officials believe the shutdown was triggered when a large piece of aluminum siding struck a transformer. They announced an "unusual event" for reactor unit 1, the least serious of the four emergency classifications used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Spokesman Mark Sullivan said Unit 1 remained offline while workers inspected the transformer to ensure it is in "safe and workable condition." A second reactor was working fine at 100 percent power, and the plant remains stable, Sullivan said.

He said it was not clear when Unit 1 would resume operations.

Perhaps the biggest relief in Maryland was the absence of significant flooding in communities along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. While the storm dumped up to a foot of rain in parts of the Eastern Shore and 4.5 inches in Baltimore, areas that typically flood even in heavy thunderstorms did not do so.

In Baltimore, Fells Point and the Inner Harbor were spared, as was City Dock in Annapolis and low-lying communities such as Bowleys Quarters in eastern Baltimore County.

Unlike in Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, Irene's "winds pushed the water out of the bay, instead of up it," said Bob Maloney, the head of the Baltimore's emergency management office.

"We were very lucky," Maloney said.

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