Maryland 'dodged a bullet' with powerful storm

Sandy linked to two deaths, causes widespread outages

October 31, 2012|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Hurricane Sandy's howling winds and torrential rains walloped Maryland late Monday and early Tuesday, cutting electricity to more than 300,000 utility customers and disrupting life for millions from Ocean City to the suddenly snowy mountains of Garrett County.

Authorities linked the storm to two deaths in the state, as well as a carbon monoxide exposure that sickened three people in North Laurel and a leak of at least 20 million gallons of sewage into the Little Patuxent River in Howard County. The town of Crisfield saw major flood damage.

But by Tuesday morning, as it became clear that New Jersey and New York had taken the brunt of the storm, area officials expressed relief that the impact wasn't nearly as bad as initially feared.

"We were prepared for the worst," Gov. Martin O'Malley said. "We were spared having to endure the worst."

Wednesday morning should bring signs that things are getting back to normal, from the reopening of many local government offices to the resumption of MARC train and commuter bus schedules. Early voting will resume after being canceled Monday and Tuesday. And some area schools will be back in session, though not in Harford County and Baltimore City.

As predicted for much of the last week, Sandy made landfall with historic proportions, hurling its relentless rains and hurricane-force winds across a 350-mile swath of the Atlantic coast. But Marylanders benefited when the storm edged north and marched inland faster than predicted. After landing in New Jersey, Sandy — downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone — ravaged Atlantic City and other coastal areas before pushing into Manhattan, where a storm surge swallowed up cars and flooded subway tunnels.

"We all dodged a bullet on this one," Anne Arundel County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Thompson said Tuesday from the county's emergency operations center. "If that storm would have wiggled a little bit south, with those winds, it would have been a doozy."

Still, even that glancing blow caused havoc in Maryland. Fierce winds toppled more than 200 trees in Baltimore alone, contributing to significant power outages. As of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, roughly 66,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers remained without electricity, after roughly 280,000 had their power restored.

Harford County was hit particularly hard, with a third or more of the homes and businesses without electricity, officials said. Bel Air Town Administrator Chris Schlehr said half the town was still without power Tuesday afternoon, but otherwise, "we're doing reasonably well."

Massive amounts of rain fell in the area — Parkville got 8.4 inches, the National Weather Service said — and wind gusts reached 58 mph at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where scores of flights were canceled.

The Bay Bridge was rocked by 74-mph sustained winds and struck by 90-mph gusts three times, according to state transportation officials. The bridge closed for 18.25 hours — the longest weather-related shutdown in its history. It reopened at 9 a.m. Tuesday following a damage assessment by bridge inspectors.

A tree crashed through a home on Suitt Drive in Pasadena Monday night, killing 74-year-old Donald C. Cannata Sr., police said. "It was a tremendous tree," said Lt. Glenn Shanahan. "We needed a crane to take it off of him."

Earlier Monday, 66-year-old Mai Ai Lam-Phan of Montgomery County died in a head-on collision in Clarksburg. The state medical examiner, noting that witnesses had seen standing water on the road, said the accident would not have occurred but for the hurricane.

O'Malley described the deaths as a "tragic loss of life" but said they were "far fewer than what our neighbors had to endure" in other states, including 17 in New York and five in New Jersey.

The hurricane's back end hovered over the East Coast Tuesday, dropping more rain onto ground already saturated by the five to eight inches of rain that had fallen in the past 48 hours. The storm pushed into the Midwest and New England, blanketing Michigan and Vermont with wind warnings. Much of Maine was under a flood watch.

The power outage numbers place Sandy's impact well behind on the list of Maryland's recent destructive storms. About 338,000 customers in BGE's territory lost power at some point because of Sandy, compared with around 750,000 outages during both Hurricane Irene last year and June's derecho windstorm. In 2003, Tropical Storm Isabel knocked power out for 790,000 BGE customers for up to eight days.

Though O'Malley cheered Maryland's relative good fortune, he noted that Sandy caused severe flooding in Crisfield.

"That's going to be a long haul," O'Malley said of restoring Crisfield, which he is scheduled to tour Wednesday. "Some people may not be able to return to their homes."

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