A year post-derecho, some lessons are still being put into action

Efforts continue to prevent or shorten power outages, protect vulnerable residents

June 28, 2013|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

After last June's derecho — and Tropical Storms Irene and Isabel before it — Rodgers Forge resident Nancy Slaterback was fed up with power outages.

"The problem's getting worse. It's not getting better," she told members of the Public Service Commission at a hearing on the derecho blackouts last summer that left her and many of her neighbors without power for the better part of a week, among 1 million outages statewide.

A year later, the outrage has faded, but there is still work to be done. The 67-year-old has been considering buying a generator that could power her entire house, including a machine that treats her sleep apnea. "You're talking maybe $10,000," she said recently.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is procuring a generator for a key facility that lost power. State energy officials are weighing how to better equip nursing homes for outages and how to avert gas station outages like those in parts of New Jersey paralyzed by superstorm Sandy. And utilities continue work to protect the electricity grid.

Emergency responders and utility officials say they are better prepared for the next outage emergency, having made efforts to shorten the duration of outages and better locate vulnerable residents who might be suffering in the dark.

"It's going to be an ongoing thing as we learn from this," said Edward McDonough, a Maryland Emergency Management Administration spokesman. "Hopefully, we're not going to need to use it."

Many of the lessons quickly became apparent after the storm blew through about 11 p.m. last June 29.

Forecasts earlier that day called for a chance of afternoon or evening thunderstorms, and temperatures soared to 103 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Storms heading eastward from Illinois and Indiana typically would not maintain their strength crossing over the Appalachians, but the hot, steamy air over the East Coast made this no typical storm, fueling its severity.

It morphed into a meteorological phenomenon that entered the lexicon of millions of people from Chicago to Baltimore — a derecho. Named for the Spanish word meaning "straight ahead," derecho storms are rare and hard to predict. They form a long and powerful squall line that brings straight-line wind gusts upward of 60 mph across an area hundreds of miles long and wide.

The storm's winds wreaked carnage across the region, snapping limbs and uprooting trees, strewing them across power lines and onto vehicles and houses with deadly force. Falling trees killed a 25-year-old man as he drove a sport utility vehicle in Catonsville and an elderly Silver Spring woman sheltered in her home.

Another death linked to the derecho occurred this month. Lee Bowman, a 62-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident, was paralyzed from the shoulders down when he was struck by a falling tree while clearing storm debris July 8 of last year. He died June 13 of an infection stemming from a bedsore.

Power outages for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers peaked at 430,000 a few hours after the storm passed, and more than 762,000 customers lost power at some point over the nine days after the storm hit. The average outage lasted 38 hours, but some were as long as a week.

At NASA Goddard's 1,300-acre Greenbelt campus, the storm felled trees, cutting two of three sources of power. Scientists working on the James Webb Space Telescope, a major project set to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018, were in the midst of testing equipment when the lights went out.

Outages are something they are always on guard for — in a massive clean room where they are building elements of the telescope, lighted signs on the wall warn of approaching storms. Various levels of storm alerts advise the scientists not to start certain activities that are best not interrupted by a power outage.

In the case of the derecho, no damage was done and the equipment being tested was not anything bound for space, said Jason Hylan, lead mechanical engineer for Goddard's efforts on the telescope. A backup power generator for the clean room is still being procured.

Meanwhile, work continues to prevent future storms from rocking Slaterback's Rodgers Forge neighborhood. She received a letter in late June informing her that more power lines would be buried as part of what BGE calls "selective undergrounding." Many called for a massive effort to bury the electricity grid to protect it from falling trees; the utility pursues the practice where the cost is worth the benefit.

That work is focused on a wooded area near Stanmore Road and Stevenson Lane, where utility crews and tree experts determined that even aggressive trimming was not enough to prevent outages.

"What we found is especially during some of these severe events, even if you trim back, you still have some of these large black locust trees with shallow roots that can take the wires down," said Mike Garzon, a BGE reliability project manager.

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