Severe thunderstorms and rain today hampered efforts of utility companies in the Baltimore-Washington corridor to restore power to more than 40,000 customers, many of whom have not had electricity since last Thursday when an unexpected ice storm blasted the area.
At its peak, the storm left half a million people in the northeastern U.S. in the dark. But getting the lines repaired has proven to be challenging. Officials said it could be Tuesday afternoon before all of the lines are repaired.
Shelters jointly operated by state and county agencies and the American Red Cross remained open last night and are expected to continue operations as long as people remain without power.
Dry ice was distributed Saturday to help residents with perishable items by Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE). Meanwhile, shelter operators and local church officials said they are concerned that more vulnerable populations -- particularly those who are elderly, disabled, or ill -- may not be able to travel to shelters.
The storm dumped a foot of snow in areas stretching from northern Ohio to Massachusetts, and troublesome ice accumulated from West Virginia to New Jersey. Half of the people without power were in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, where lines and substations were downed by falling limbs and trees.
People across that region woke up on Friday to the sound of cracking tree limbs and popping live wires. At least eight deaths have been attributed to the storm, the majority due to traffic accidents.
Mass transit was delayed, the federal government closed, and airport delays rampant. A public television station in Washington, WETA-TV, was knocked off the air for 10 hours until a generator could be located.
Governor Parris Glendening declared a state of emergency in six Maryland counties.
"We are housing many families with small children, senior citizens, and those with medical issues," said Mike Fitzgerald, an emergency response specialist with the Montgomery County Health and Human Services. He is helping to oversee shelter operations at the East County Community Center near Rockville, Md.
"We provide meals, cots, and basic medical screenings, and we offer to help people call family members, their doctor, and others. Luckily, we also have a game room for the kids -- you don't really think about it but sheer boredom becomes a big problem for families in a quiet, darkened house. Once people get here, their spirits rise. People have been very patient here."
The Radio Amateur Communications Emergency System donated communication services to that shelter, and Starbucks contributed coffee.
The storm caused more power outages than the blizzard of 1996, and knocked out 11 PEPCO substations -- the most in the company's 102-year history. BGE sais it was the first time in nearly 20 years that it had requested help from neighboring utility companies.
Crews from several nearby states have traveled to the Baltimore-Washington area to help speed repairs. Ice layers of more than half an inch were reported in many places.
Volunteers working hotlines across the area report they have received the most calls from bedridden people who can't get to shelters and have no family in the area. Shelters also are challenged trying to accommodate people confined to hospital beds.
Those that make it to shelters are getting immediate needs met, said American Red Cross volunteer Kenneth Eldridge. "People seem to be fine. Once they get here, they're enjoying the warmth. They appreciate a hot meal and a blanket," he said. Eldridge helped oversee operations at the government center in Bethesda, Md., which is still serving as a shelter.
Many area hotels and motels are full to capacity, and home supply stores are sold out of kerosene heaters, generators, candles, and firewood.
Local churches have joined in the response by checking on elderly or disabled members. "We've been calling around to make sure parishioners are okay, especially those who are elderly," said the Rev. Mary B. Zurell, pastor at New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia. "You end up hearing about a lot of vulnerable people through word-of-mouth."
The Lakeland Presbyterian Church, also in Baltimore, has set up a calling network in which church Elders call members of the congregation. "We have a large percentage of elderly people among our membership. We have called to check on each of them to see if we can bring them anything," said Church Secretary Dolores Miller.
Pastors and emergency management officials alike report that, while thousands of people still remain without power, most are staying with family and friends rather than in shelters. "People from the church simply took in their fellow members who had no heat," said the Rev. Gerard Knoche, also a pastor at New Hope. "This is a case where those in need could really rely on their church family."
"I think people are more comfortable staying with family," said Barbara Lawson, church secretary for Hope Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. "This is the longest power outage I can recall in this area. And it's no wonder -- the trees were coming down every which way."
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