Swaths of Baltimore County still without power

Officials criticize BGE's hurricane response

August 31, 2011|By Annie Linskey and Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

Power restoration to Baltimore County homes in the wake of Hurricane Irene lagged behind the rest of the state Wednesday, as tens of thousands of residents entered a fourth evening without lights.

Large numbers of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County households also lacked power, putting Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. under fire from irritated ratepayers and their elected leaders.

Days after the weekend storm hit, some businesses in Maryland were shuttered, traffic lights at intersections remained dark, and sewage was backing up at some homes. About two dozen schools — most of them in Baltimore County — were expected to remain closed Thursday, further postponing the new school year.

"It is a very frustrating experience," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "I certainly encourage the General Assembly to evaluate [BGE's] performance at the appropriate time."

Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin fired off an angry email informing constituents that "further inquiry" was merited into whether the utility was adequately prepared for the hurricane.

Officials from BGE, the state's largest electricity provider, stressed that the company has restored power to customers faster than during Tropical Storm Isabel, which knocked a similar number of homes and businesses off the grid in 2003. By Wednesday evening, power had been restored to more than 630,000 customers affected by Irene, the company said.

Rob Gould, a spokesman, said the utility is on track to have most outages repaired by Friday. "We're certainly being extremely aggressive with restoration," he said. The utility has more than 5,000 workers trying to restore service, including those imported from nearly a dozen states.

The state's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, will hold hearings to evaluate the way companies responded to the storm. The hearings are routinely scheduled after major weather events, said PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian.

At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, roughly 110,000 BGE customers remained without electricity. At 7:30, about 10,000 of the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative homes and businesses smacked by Irene remained without power.

Pepco, which was criticized for its slow response in last winter's snowstorms, had restored power to almost every household and business on its grid.

Baltimore County continued to bear the brunt of the outages, with 45,000 households down as of 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. In Anne Arundel, 25,000 households were without power; Baltimore City had 14,000.

"A lot of people had 48 hours of patience," Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday. "That 48 hours is up. People are getting understandably prickly." The governor, a Democrat, said he "will not be satisfied" until all outages from Hurricane Irene are restored.

O'Malley noted that power had been restored to a larger percentage of Southern Maryland homes, an area of the state that was hit particularly hard. "I'm not sure [Baltimore County] was hit any harder," he said.

Chris Burton, a BGE executive who's helping to oversee the power restoration project, said the outage figures only prove that there was more storm damage in Central Maryland than in other parts of the state. The additional outages required more repair work and allocation of resources, he said.

Official damage estimates will take more time, but Comptroller Peter Franchot estimated Wednesday that the evacuation of Ocean City cost the state about $2 million in lost tax revenues.

In Anne Arundel County, some homeowners awoke Wednesday to an unpleasant surprise: Sewage systems down since Sunday morning had backed up and were seeping into streets and filling basements.

Residents of the Brockington community in Fort Smallwood, which is having the problem, are "very mad," said William Aaron, 57. About 35 homes are affected, he said, adding that the development has taken on a rancid odor.

"You go in and say: 'What is that smell?' " Aaron said. "And then you recognize it."

Power outages also were a major concern for Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, who met Wednesday with some restaurant and hotel owners who had temporarily closed their businesses. She had harsh words for BGE, saying the utility should put a greater emphasis on ensuring that workplaces could reopen.

"If they cared about people, they'd put people back to work by getting the companies electricity," said Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties.

Pam Hess, who owns and operates three hotels in Edgewood in Harford County, is among those affected by the power outage. She has not paid her 45 employees in days because the hotels are closed and the 150 rooms empty.

"These are people who work paycheck to paycheck," Hess said. "Beyond the economic impact on our business, it is really starting to hurt people substantially."

There were brighter signs in other parts of Maryland.

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