By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
10:36 AM EDT, July 3, 2012
A summer heat wave expected to last through the weekend is now blamed for seven deaths across Maryland, and public officials called Monday for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to act quickly to repair power outages or risk more deaths.
Four people died of heat-related illnesses — two of them elderly Baltimore men — in the past week, state health officials said Monday. Another three died in Friday's storms, which meteorologists said were made more potent by the steamy air.
Elected leaders urged utilities to work quickly to restore power to BGE customers. Some of them might not see their electricity return until the weekend. As of 10 a.m., about 162,500 BGE customers were without power and about 516,500 had their power restored. Baltimore County had 54,600 homes and businesses without power, Baltimore had 47,500, Anne Arundel County had 31,400, Howard County had 9,650, Carroll County had 1,500 and Harford County had 355.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized BGE for moving slower in the city than elsewhere in the state, putting elderly and poor residents at risk, while state health officials urged the restoration of power to 33 nursing homes still without it.
"We might be annoyed, frustrated and hot as heck. We can get over that," Rawlings-Blake said. "If we lose a vulnerable citizen because of this heat, we can't get over that."
The Maryland Public Service Commission intends to require BGE and other utilities to produce comprehensive reports by early August about their efforts to restore customers' power after the storm. Hearings will be held afterward, also likely in August — a requirement after major outages.
Headaches remain as crews work to clear roadways and restore power to hundreds of traffic signals. The storm also created some crimes of opportunity, with thefts of power generators reported at homes in Baltimore County and from streets in the city.
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 recent days, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. No details on the circumstances surrounding the deaths were available, so it was unclear whether the deaths had anything to do with power outages.
Health officials had enacted a state heat emergency plan Friday, warning residents to be cautious of heatstroke and heat exhaustion as temperatures peaked at 106 degrees downtown and 103 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
On Sunday, Maryland Natural Resources Police recovered the body of a Virginia man in waters near Chesapeake Beach. Angel Giovani Ayala Cerros, 26, of Alexandria, was thrown from a small boat during Friday's storm. Four survivors on the 12-foot boat that capsized were rescued early Saturday morning by the Coast Guard.
Trees knocked down by winds approaching 70 mph killed two other people Friday night. Kevin Alan O'Brien, 25, of Edgewater was pronounced dead Friday night after a tree fell on his 2009 Ford Escape while he was traveling east in the 400 block of Harwood Road. A 71-year-old woman's body was found Saturday by fire personnel who responded to a downed tree on Grant Avenue in Silver Spring.
Others were thankful for their fortune in the face of the deadly storm.
As Tony Sartori sees it, Friday night could have gone a lot worse for the family. If Sartori's wife, Mary Garlington, had stood much longer in the bedroom of their Gittings Avenue house in North Baltimore, a gingko tree could have killed her as it smashed through a window and speared the closet door, Sartori said. Sartori had rushed his wife to the basement just minutes before the powerful storm broke.
"The way I looked at it, God gave us another chance," Sartori said. "God protected us. It wasn't our time."
BGE has been giving customers a broad estimate for when power will be back on — that work could extend to the weekend — but officials said they plan to get more specific as soon as possible.
"We don't want to overpromise and underdeliver," said Stephen Woerner, BGE's chief operating officer.
Crews from out-of-state utilities started arriving Monday and more are expected Tuesday. As BGE receives more assistance, officials will be able to give more precise estimates on when service can be restored, Woerner said.
The utility has more than 300 employees and contractors out in the field fixing problems with the overhead power system, Woerner said. Joining them are hundreds of out-of-state utility workers — their numbers rising from about 100 on Sunday to 900 by late Monday. BGE expects to have about 1,200 outside utility workers helping out by the end of Tuesday.
BGE spokesman Robert Gould said he understands customers' frustration with the vague estimates of when power will be restored. "But the reality is, there are so many variables that are outside our control," he said. Another storm Sunday night added more than 12,000 customers the outage list.
Gould said BGE doesn't want a repeat of Hurricane Irene last year, when the utility offered "very specific estimates" and aggravated customers when it couldn't meet them.
Still, Rawlings-Blake criticized BGE for what she called an inadequate response to the storm. The city opened shelters Monday night at Baltimore Junior Academy and Dawson Family Safe Haven Center with 75 beds each for families affected by the storms.
"Right now, our restoration rate has fallen behind the state average," she said Monday. "We should be on par or above the state average. We have the state's concentration of elderly, the state's concentration of poor."
As of 8:30 p.m. Monday, power had been restored to 72 percent of BGE customers who lost it areawide, compared with 66 percent in Baltimore City.
Hank Greenberg, state director for AARP Maryland, the organization for people 50 and older, criticized the utility for providing information so vague that customers couldn't plan.
"It doesn't help to tell everyone that 'we'll have you back up seven to nine days after the storm,'" said Greenberg, who lives in Crownsville and had no power as of late Monday afternoon. "I don't think that's an adequate response. I think … the company knows [in] what order they're going to be doing restoration."
Gov. Martin O'Malley defended the utility's response but also pledged to keep urging BGE and Washington-area utility Pepco to make haste.
"I think we have to acknowledge the perception that people rightly have, that there are not as many crews out there as they saw immediately after Hurricane Irene struck," O'Malley said. "That is because we suffered a hit that was the equivalent of a hurricane impact and the power outages that a hurricane causes, and yet we did not have the four days of warning that would have allowed BGE to bring in crews from other states."
Friday's storms were part of what meteorologists call a "derecho," a Spanish word meaning "straight ahead." The storms began forming early Friday afternoon in Indiana and built intensity as they moved 600 miles to Maryland.
Lower evening temperatures and obstacles such as the Appalachian Mountains made it hard to predict whether the storms would weaken before reaching Maryland, as they often do, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meterologist for the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
BGE officials say their crews are working overtime on power restoration. Meter readers, for instance, have been reassigned to look for safety problems such as downed power lines, they said.
"We are sparing no expense; we are sparing no effort," Gould said.
Police did not report any looting or crime spike in the power outages' wake, but some thieves have taken advantage.
Four city-owned generators were stolen from intersections where they had been set up to power high-volume traffic signals in Southwest and Northwest Baltimore, said city police Deputy Commissioner John Skinner. Police also noted reports of burglaries, including several break-ins at city schools.
Baltimore County police said Monday two generators were stolen in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 1 — one from the 200 block of Gaywood Road and the other from the 6300 block of Pinehurst Road in Rodgers Forge.
Transportation officials had warned of a treacherous Monday commute, with downed trees and wires still blocking roads and traffic signals without power. But they reported few problems on area roadways. Col. Marcus Brown, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said there were no injuries at intersections during the morning commute, and State Highway Administration officials reported no major accidents and lighter traffic because of the holiday this week and state and federal liberal-leave policies, spokesman Dave Buck said.
"The public did a very good job with how they handled these intersections," Brown said.
At least 75 traffic signals were not operating Monday on major arteries around the state, down from about 600 signal outages at the height of the storm, Brown said.
In Baltimore County, 24 roads and intersections remained without power as of 2:30 p.m. Monday but that figure was expected to decline as utility crews continued to work to restore power, county Police Chief James W. Johnson said. Twenty roads remained closed Monday afternoon because of to downed wires, county police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.
"So far, everyone is being cautious, patient and courteous through the dark intersections," Buck said. "People are treating those like four-way stops."
The downed trees meant extra activity for companies like Arbor Tech Tree Care Inc. in Baltimore. Tracey Allen described what would usually be a quiet time of year as "very insane. We've been on the go since 7 o'clock Saturday morning, and it hasn't stopped."
She said the 24-hour service line rang at her house around midnight, even before the storm cleared out. Hours later, the company made its first service call, and the crew of five has been going ever since.
Minnie Allen, filling in for the regular secretary at Allen & Sons Tree Service in Parkville, said the first call for service came about 1 a.m. Saturday, soon after the storm blew through. Since then, she said, the company's crew of eight or nine employees has been going "just constantly, nonstop" from about 6 a.m. to 8 or 8:30 in the evening.
Most of the calls have come from Parkville, she said. "They were hit pretty hard."
Meanwhile, restaurants suffered as they risked losing inventory to spoilage. City health officials closed 31 eateries for selling food without power over the weekend.
Cassandra Cary, a Baltimore City health inspector, said she'd closed 12 establishments when she was on patrol Saturday after the storm.
"Some were frying chicken as I walked in the door," Cary said. "They know that it's dangerous. But I guess they don't want to lose their product or commodity."
Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Gail Hare, Candus Thomson, Colin Campbell, Yvonne Wenger, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Justin Fenton, Arthur Hirsch and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article. Towson Times reporter Jon Meoli also contributed.
Weather by the numbers
7: heat- and storm-related deaths tallied as of Monday
675,000: power outages in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s territory at peak
6: consecutive days with high temperatures of at least 90 degrees
103: high temperature at BWI Marshall Airport on Friday
66: wind speed, in miles per hour, at BWI Marshall Airport during Friday's storms
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