By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
7:51 AM EDT, July 6, 2012
Four heat-related deaths were reported to state health officials on Independence Day, three of them in Baltimore, bringing the death toll from the recent stretch of heat and storms to 11.
Two men over age 65 and one man between the ages of 45 and 65 died in the city, according to a daily report on heat deaths released Thursday. A Montgomery County man over age 65 also died.
The heat-related deaths come during nine straight days of 90- to 100-degree high temperatures, and as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers seek to reconnect power to about 26,765 customers who are still without electricity as of early Friday, six days after a powerful storm struck the state June 29.
No further information on the deaths was available.
Dangerous heat remains in the forecast through the weekend, along with chances for storms — both of which could complicate power restoration efforts. Heat index values reached 110 degrees in some areas Thursday, with highs of 99 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and 103 degrees downtown at the Maryland Science Center.
Behind-the-scenes details on BGE's efforts could become available by the end of the month, according to the state's top energy regulator. The Public Service Commission requires utilities to file storm reports within three weeks of all outages being restored, Chairman Douglas Nazarian said Thursday.
"We are not satisfied … until everyone is back on," Nazarian said at a news conference at the commission's downtown headquarters. "At this point, our sole focus is on ensuring the power gets restored, not in grading or evaluating anybody's performance."
Residents still without power expressed concern not just for themselves, but for the elderly and other groups. One nursing home in Montgomery County remained on a backup power generator Thursday, according to Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Edward Hopkins. That was down from 33 nursing homes without utility-supplied power three days earlier, according to health officials.
Senior citizens were among the fatalities reported earlier this week. Two Baltimore men, ages 82 and 65, died Sunday, Baltimore Health Department spokesman Brian Schleter said. An elderly Wicomico County man and an adult Montgomery County man also died in the week that ended Sunday, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Falling trees killed two other people and a man died in the Chesapeake Bay when a small boat capsized during the storms.
Jim Cusick said he fears for his next-door neighbor, a 92-year-old widow, as he has watched BGE trucks pass through the Westview Park area of Catonsville without any sign of work being done. Nearby, a large tree limb remained resting on power lines Thursday afternoon.
"There's two trucks on the street today, so I'm hopeful," Cusick said. "Hope springs eternal."
In its report to the PSC, BGE officials will be required to include details on the speed with which they have tackled such downed trees and wires. It is a routine requirement after major storms knocking out power to at least 100,000 utility customers.
About 675,000 BGE customers lost power in the storm, and 1.1 million utility customers across the state lost power.
Given the impact of the storm, greater than that of Hurricane Irene last year, Nazarian said the commission is prepared to scrutinize every aspect of utilities' preparations and response. But commissioners aren't yet making any judgments, despite hearing complaints from hundreds of Marylanders, he said.
BGE officials have said they expect power restoration efforts to last into the weekend, which would set the deadline for filing a storm report with the PSC by the end of the month.
Once utilities' storm reports are filed to the PSC, commissioners will review them to ensure no regulations or laws were violated. That review includes exploring whether utilities and their power systems were reasonably and sufficiently prepared, and whether they thoroughly and expediently responded to outages. Fines or other penalties could follow if necessary, Nazarian said.
Fines have been using sparingly in recent years, Nazarian said, but a prominent recent example came in December when the commission charged Washington-area utility Pepco $1 million for failure to properly maintain the electricity grid. The poor maintenance led to prolonged and frequent power outages, most notably in Montgomery County in 2010, and Pepco exacerbated the problem with poor communication, the commission found.
The heat has challenged restoration efforts, causing about 10,000 new outages since Wednesday, BGE spokesman Robert Gould said. Despite the high temperatures, the utility doesn't expect to activate its Peak Rewards program, which cycles customers' air-conditioning on hot days that stress the power grid.
BGE officials plan to do all they can to find successes and lessons to apply to future storms, Gould said.
"We were a full participant in the review of Hurricane Irene," he said. "We would expect to do nothing less in this, and we are always open to a process that is only going to help improve our processes going forward."
Some, including state Sen. James C. Rosapepe of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, have called for the PSC to explore putting power lines underground, and Nazarian said he was open to looking at the idea. But he also cited a 2003 state report that found that burying all power lines would cost each utility customer in the state $340 to $415 per year, and it would take 15 to 20 years to complete.
"It's a very expensive proposition," Nazarian said. "It's not going to be a short-term solution to any of this, even if it turns out to be the best solution."
Nazarian also expressed some concern that part of the problem could be coming not from the utilities but from global climate change's apparent contribution to an increase in severe weather.
"Mother Nature is obviously angry," Nazarian said, noting blizzards, severe thunderstorms and a hurricane all striking the state in the past two years. "As a human being and a citizen, I find it hard to believe that increased pollution over a long period of time isn't going to have some impact on our climate and our environment. I'm not a climate-change scientist, and I'm not a scientist at all, but I think there is a pretty clear scientific consensus that global warming is happening."
A break in the heat is forecast for Monday, with high temperatures expected to dip into the 80s for at least a couple of days. In the meantime, cooling centers are scheduled to remain open through Sunday in Baltimore.
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