Residents warned to be prepared to lose electricity

Utilities, energy regulators seek improvements over power outages after derecho, Irene

October 26, 2012|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

Utility and emergency response officials prepared for the worst Friday as Hurricane Sandy churned northward, readying for nearly a foot of rain, hurricane- or tropical storm-force winds, and power outages that could number in the hundreds of thousands.

As Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency Friday to ready relief supplies and mobilize the National Guard, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials hurried to muster 2,000 out-of-state utility workers. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and county government leaders urged residents to prepare. State energy regulators hastily called a meeting to prevent problems that arose in recent power outages, while portable electricity generators quickly disappeared from hardware store shelves throughout the region.

Forecast models continued to shift Sandy's projected track late Friday, with the storm's outer bands at least two days away, though the National Hurricane Center still predicted that the storm's center would strike the Delmarva Peninsula late Monday and head northwest through Baltimore. Regardless of where the storm's center arrives, meteorologists expect the massive cyclone to inflict hundreds of millions of dollars of damage over at least half a dozen states, including Maryland.

Emergency management officials warn that the impact of the storm could last for days, depending on where it makes landfall. The predicted path into the Eastern Shore would be devastating. Even if the storm passes to the north, as some models suggested Friday, heavy winds and rain are still expected.

"We're in a very serious situation," said Robert Maloney, director of the Baltimore mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "There's no good-case scenario, because you don't know what poison pill you want. If this storm goes on its projected path, we're going to be doing something until next Friday."

BGE officials aim to have the necessary crews ready before Sandy arrives. About 800 are committed to the utility and are en route from Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana and as far away as Texas and New Mexico, officials said. A much shorter window of warning from the July 29 derecho made it difficult for the utility to gather the 1,500 needed workers, and some outages lasted a week.

Crews will begin repairing outages when winds calm to below 25 mph, officials said.

"While our crews will be in place and our staging site equipped before the arrival of the storm, the projected high winds and heavy rain may result in extended power outages," Jeannette M. Mills, BGE's chief customer officer, said in a statement.

Some utility customers immediately took the warnings seriously — portable generators were in high demand and short supply at local hardware stores.

James Boyd of Essex was one of the lucky few to get his hands on one. After driving to six stores Thursday night and a few more Friday morning, he stopped by the Home Depot in Dundalk for one last try. The store sold about two dozen generators in about two minutes first thing Friday morning, according to plumbing department employee Fred Szyzewski, but another had materialized.

"There were four people on their phones talking about [whether to buy] it, and I said, 'Is this one sold?'" Boyd said. "He said, 'Not yet,' so I said, 'I'll buy it.' "

The Maryland Public Service Commission called a last-minute meeting Friday to address a problem that arose during the aftermath of the derecho, when county officials around the state said they were unable to obtain specific outage locations from utilities. Commissioners agreed that electric utilities could release customer information to emergency-management officials trying to follow up with residents who lost power — particularly those with serious illnesses.

The PSC said utilities may release customers' names, addresses, telephone numbers and special-needs information to government emergency-management agencies only if the data is kept confidential and destroyed soon after power is restored. If the utility has already asked customers whether they want their information shared, as Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has, it can't pass on information about the people who said no.

The decision applies only to the incoming storm, though PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said he expects the regulatory agency will discuss later how utilities should handle government appeals for power outage information at a customer level. The commission held the hearing in response to a last-minute request from BGE, which asked whether it should release information.

"Hopefully this won't have to get used," Nazarian said of the plan. But whether Sandy hits Maryland or not, "we will continue to think about this for the next one."

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