By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
5:06 PM EDT, July 9, 2012
Lights flipped on and air conditioners started humming across the Baltimore region amid a storm cleanup of hurricane proportions Tuesday, but the rate of power restoration slowed as workers focused on isolated outages and faced the potential for more severe weather.
Many power outages are stretching into their fifth day, and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials warned that rounds of thunderstorms Tuesday night and Wednesday could threaten plans to tackle the remaining 126,000 by the end of the weekend. A powerful storm known as a derecho knocked out power to 675,000 BGE customers Friday night.
Local leaders stressed that health concerns are mounting as a sustained heat wave ratchets back up, putting the elderly and others at risk. Four people have died of heat-related illnesses, including two in Baltimore on July 1, and 17 nursing homes across the state were relying on emergency generators.
Meanwhile, reports of carbon monoxide hazards also increased as more and more area residents relied on portable generators. Howard County fire officials have found three homes whose generators posed carbon monoxide hazards.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state is entering "probably the most dangerous part of this event" because older residents have been "worn out" by days without air conditioning in sweltering heat. High temperatures reached the 90s for a seventh consecutive day Tuesday and are expected to stay at that level through Sunday.
"The more prolonged the heat exposure … the more vulnerable [the elderly] become," O'Malley said. "We are still in a very dangerous part of this emergency."
BGE had 3,500 workers out in storm crews Tuesday, 1,300 of them from outside the state, spokesman Rob Gould said. While the extra crews are helping to chip away at the remaining outages, crews have mostly made repairs that restore blocks of as many as 2,000 homes at once.
Remaining repairs require just as much manpower, but restore power for smaller blocks of homes, or even a single home, Gould said.
"This is manual labor," Gould said. "This is literally cutting and clearing trees, resetting poles and putting wires back. All of that sounds very simple, but it is a complex and heavily labor-intensive process."
Thunderstorms were expected to pass through the region Tuesday night, and more could crop up Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. Any outages they add could slow the progress of BGE workers' progress, Gould said.
"Obviously any discussion of a timeline [of restoring power] into this weekend is predicated on the weather not harming our effort," he said.
The widespread outages left Dale Lucas frustrated. Houses near his Greenspring Valley farm had power restored, but all he has is a temperamental generator to power a well pump and provide water for the 17 show horses on 85-acre Helmore Farm. He has been getting only a few hours of sleep at night, waking frequently because the generator needs to be restarted.
"We are in desperate straits right now," Lucas said. "We've got to take care of these animals, and we've got a serious problem with supplying water."
He has called BGE officials as well as the Maryland Public Service Commission for help, but necessary repairs to nearby power lines haven't been made. "This is like talking to a rock," he said.
At the 17 nursing homes without utility-supplied power, emergency generators are keeping the lights on, according to Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. Four of those institutions don't have enough power to operate air-conditioners, including the Villa near Rodgers Forge, where 48 Sisters of Mercy live.
Surrounded by green lawns and trees, the building has lots of fans and is not as hot as the outdoors. Administrator Carol Zaicko said most of the sisters grew up without air-conditioning and aren't complaining.
The staff opens windows at night to let in cool air and then closes things up again in the heat of the day, she said. If there were any health concerns because of the heat, she said she would contact the state and ask the sisters to be moved to a facility with air-conditioning.
"We are just pushing the liquids so they don't get dehydrated," Zaicko said.
The Envoy home in Baltimore County and another nursing home in Prince George's County also don't have air-conditioning, according to Hopkins. A law passed recently requires nursing homes to have a generator that can act as a backup power supply in case of a power outage.
Baltimore officials said Tuesday that they would open shelters at the Baltimore Junior Academy and Dawson Family Safe Haven Center, each with 75 beds, for a second day on Wednesday. City cooling centers will be kept open through Thursday.
The city also decided to postpone the closure of three fire companies once again — the second postponement since the storm hit — as fire officials help the city recover from the storms.
The companies — East Baltimore's Truck 15, West Baltimore's Truck 10 and Southeast Baltimore's Engine 11 — had been set to close Sunday morning as a cost-cutting measure, but the department has decided to keep them open until Monday at 7 a.m., the fire officers' union said. Union president Michael Campbell said the firefighters learned of the change by citywide email Tuesday.
"Evidently somebody's coming to the realization that we need these companies," Campbell said.
Public safety workers around the region were also checking for problems with generators. Howard County firefighters canvassing neighborhoods found lethal levels of carbon monoxide from a generator in an Ellicott City garage on Font Hill Drive. They were able to alert the resident and move the generator to a safe location.
And downed lines still pose safety hazards. The storm brought power lines down near Joe Surkiewicz's house in Homeland on Friday night. His wife called BGE, which sent two contractors Sunday, giving Surkiewicz hope that his power would soon be back on.
But, no. As of midday Tuesday, it was still off. Instead, BGE has had a pair of workers watching the downed wires round the clock since Sunday, he said. The utility routinely posts office workers or other spare staff at downed lines to make sure the public keeps a safe distance until repairs can be made, Gould said.
Still, Surkiewicz criticized the practice as he waited for his power to be restored.
"They're nice guys, but what kind of use of manpower is that?" Surkiewicz asked. "How many other people [with] downed lines have two guys sitting in a truck, running all night long?"
As far as he knows, his is the only house on the block that lost power. So he figures he's far down on the priority list. But on the flip side, "we've gotten lots of sympathy and help."
"Without asking, a neighbor brought in an extension cord and we plugged the refrigerator in," he said.
Tree cleanup continued to keep contractors busy Tuesday, even with the largest felled branches cleared.
Bill Cooch had planned to have his tree removal team wait out the oppressive heat that was forecast last weekend, and take up a few jobs on the Fourth of July. But, the snap, crackle, pop that rang through the air as he stood on the deck of his home Friday night confirmed that his plans would change.
"Everybody's happy to see us," Cooch said Tuesday, as his Forester Tree Service team began a fourth day of near around-the-clock work. "Nobody wants to see anybody in turmoil, and see people's stuff busted up, but it's good for the tree and roofing business."
He said the only aggravation comes when residents realize his team is not there to restore power.
Lochearn resident Mark Parrish watched as Forester crews lifted the very same tree he complained to Baltimore County about years ago from the roof of the garage he built eight years ago. It left a caved roof, significant water damage, and a $2,400 price tag.
"We always thought, 'Well, if a tree lands on our house, we could always sleep in the garage,'" he said. "Guess that's out."
An earlier version incorrectly included the Augsburg Lutheran Home among nursing homes in Maryland that were without air conditioning after storms caused widespread power outages. The facility had air conditioning in 70 percent of its rooms at the time, spokesman George Clemes said.
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