Irene's greatest aggravation: power outages

Marylanders try to accept outages gracefully, admit their patience might wane after a few days

August 29, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

It was bad enough that Hurricane Irene stole Lisa Dillin's electricity.

But when the Wyman Park resident learned that just up the street, the lights were on and the ceiling fans whirring, she unleashed a sentiment familiar to the power-deprived across Maryland.

"That stinks!" she cried.

Though Irene did not cause widespread flooding in Maryland or smash buildings to the degree many feared, the storm left as many as 850,000 businesses and households without power. By 1:30 p.m. Monday, that number had fallen to 472,000, said a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. said it has restored nearly 50 percent of customers affected within 24 hours of the storm's passing. Company officials said it expects to restore service to the majority of customers by late Friday with some isolated outages that may extend into Saturday.

From Ellicott City to Owings Mills to Ruxton, Irene collapsed massive trees into power lines, deprived major intersections of functioning traffic lights and left residents hoping against hope that life would return quickly to their televisions, refrigerators and coffee makers.

Marylanders tried to make the best of it, playing old-fashioned games by candlelight, reacquainting themselves with neighbors and cleaning up debris together. But many said they'd lose patience after a few days.

Gov.Martin O'Malley urged patience Monday from the Maryland households and businesses that were still without power because of Hurricane Irene.

"People are going to be without electricity for a long time, days," O'Malley said, adding that he still could not offer a definitive timetable for restoration.

"I can tell you there are crews working around the clock," the governor said. "We'll stay on this."

Of the 472,000 without power as of midday, about 354,000 were customers of BGE.

When asked if he was satisfied with BGE's efforts, O'Malley said, "I think none of us are satisfied, and we won't be satisfied until everybody is back on."

But he praised BGE's efforts to import hundreds of out-of-state utility workers before the storm. O'Malley compared Irene to the twin snow storms of 2010, noting that those storms left only 333,000 without power, while Irene-related outages peaked at 822,000.

"There was a lot more damage done … than was done even in the snow event," he said.

The governor said BGE was close to finishing repairs on the power stations and "feeders" that serve large clusters of homes across the Baltimore area. But he said the utility company has a long way to go in fixing 2,000 damaged transformers, which are closer to houses and serve much smaller clusters.

BGE spokesman Rob Gould said Sunday the combination of powerful winds and rain-saturated ground caused many trees to topple onto power lines and damage vital equipment. He added that more trees could fall and new outages could continue to spring up. BGE is the largest power supplier in the Baltimore metropolitan area with more than 1 million customers. As of 11:30 a.m. Monday morning, BGE reported that about 354,000 customers were without power.

Maryland appeared to rank second in outages among states hit by Irene. Virginia reported about 2.5 million residents without power, the second-most in state history. North Carolina, where Irene made landfall, reported more than 400,000 customers without power. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts each reported between 300,000 and 500,000 outages at various times Sunday.

Some customers of BGE reported that its phone outage line was spotty, a problem that apparently was related to a third-party vendor contracted to handle overflow calls, Gould said.

"It appears that the third-party vendor is having problems on their end, and it's not only affecting us but other utilities," Gould said.

BGE asked customers who were having trouble getting through to dial zero to get a live customer service representative.

While many residents tried to remain patient, Herman Botteon of Southeast Baltimore said he was fed up. "It's not that the power is still out," he said. "It's … the runaround. I call and talk to a person who gives me one story, and then I talk to another and get something different."

Botteon said he had been told that a crew was in his neighborhood, only to be told later that the crew had been pulled to address a more populous area. He said he had called 10 times about an arcing wire next door, to no avail.

The situation on Beech Avenue, where Dillin lives, seemed a particularly cruel example of Irene's capricious nature.

"We don't have power," said Jane Ann Krabbe, laying out the scenario in plainest terms. "They do," she said, pointing across to the western side of Beech.

The peculiar divide was apparently the result of a spectacular collision on West 39th Street, where an uprooted tree cleaved a wooden utility pole in half and left a nest of wires splayed across the road.

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