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Ice storm strikes Mid-Atlantic area

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore | January 16, 1999

Warming temperatures Saturday helped utility crews slowly restore electricity to thousands of residents, some of whom have been without

power since a massive ice storm hit the region Thursday.

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. By late Saturday, more than 100,000 families were still without power in central Maryland, northern Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Officials said it could be Tuesday 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 toshelters.

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. Although temperatures today will rise to nearly 50, widespread

power outages remain. Smaller outages are also reported in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Governor Parris Glendening has declared a state of emergency in six Maryland counties. In Montgomery County, where more than half the

traffic lights were out and more than 75 percent of PEPCO outages occurred, four warming shelters housed more than 80 people Friday

night. A fifth shelter had to close when its own power flickered out.

"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. 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.

Last night many families sought refuge in one of northern Virginia's largest shopping centers, Tyson's Corner, but they returned to chilly

homes, homes of family or friends, hotels, and shelters when the shopping center was forced to close at 6 p.m. because of power and water problems. 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."

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."

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. "We're hoping the Lord will stay with us and we'll be able to open the church doors this Sunday."

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