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Power outages fray nerves

Beryl Hawn and her two children had ice cream for lunch.

BY PJ HELLER | NORFOLK, VA | September 21, 2003

"I'm just tired of this whole mess. I've just had it."

—Beryl Hawn

Beryl Hawn and her two children had ice cream for lunch.

Portable generators, even from the back of a trailer, were hot items in Virginia, where power has been knocked out in the wake of Hurricane Isabel.

It's not something that Hawn normally would serve for lunch to her 13-year-old daughter Ellie or 14-year-old son Jimmy. But with the power still off in their Virginia Beach, Va., home , ever since Thursday morning when Hurricane Isabel roared into town , it was either eat the ice cream or end up throwing it out as it melted in the freezer.

"Our lunch yesterday was half a gallon of vanilla ice cream," Hawn confessed. "We did what we wanted with it. We were making milk shakes, slurpies . . ."

With the power still off for a third day Saturday leaving more than 1 million people in Virginia and North Carolina in the dark , not to mention an estimated 2 million others in several other mid-Atlantic states who were affected by Isabel , tempers were growing short.

The constant question everybody was asking was, "When is my power going to be restored?"

The answer was that nobody knows for sure. The best guesstimate is sometime in the coming week, possibly as late as Friday.

"We're making progress," said a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, which serves customers in Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

That was little consolidation for people who have been unable to take hot showers, for residents who have searched in vain for ice, for grocery stores which were forced to clear their shelves of perishable items and for motorists, who sat in long queues to get gasoline if they were lucky enough to find a service station that was open.

Getting to the stations also proved a challenge in some areas, with traffic lights still out. A few intersections were manned by police directing traffic. A number of accidents were blamed on non-functioning traffic lights.

The dangers posed by downed power lines was also preventing efforts by faith based organizations to begin going into affected areas to find individuals who may need assistance.

"We've got power lines everywhere," said a spokesman for the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Sales of portable generators rolled off of store shelves. One enterprising businessman in Fredericksburg peddled generators from the back of a trailer, selling the 10 that he had in less than an hour. Demand was so great that he even sold a demo unit which was his and then promised customers that he would return with more units that he planned to bring in from out of state. He said he expected to be open for business again Sunday.

At least three deaths by apparent carbon monoxide poisoning have been blamed on improper use of portable power generators. Two of those deaths, a father and his 3-year-old daughter, were reported in Maryland. The third death occurred in Virginia.

In Virginia Beach, a house fire Saturday night was blamed on a generator being used in a garage. No injuries were reported.

Authorities warned users to keep the generators outside their homes and not to store gasoline or other flammable liquids near the machines.

Overall, at least 29 deaths have been blamed on Hurricane Isabel. Damage is estimated to run about $1 billion.

Norfolk officials said damages in the city alone from Isabel would run more than $76 million, including $40 million in residential and personal property losses. City officials said 15 homes were destroyed and 66 had major damage. Two businesses were destroyed and 158 other suffered major or minor damage, the city reported.

Virginia, along with North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia have been declared federal disaster areas, making individuals and businesses there eligible for federal assistance.

Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security which now includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured Poquoson, Va., with other elected officials. Poquoson was one of the hardest hit areas in Virginia.

Ridge said FEMA would begin opening offices in the state on Monday and that staff should be in place the following day to start processing applications for federal aid.

While the worst of Isabel has passed, officials were still keeping a wary eye on some rivers in the region which weren't expected to crest until early next week.

As if the situation wasn't bad enough, Newport News waterworks has urged customers to begin conserving water.

"It is an absolute and urgent necessity to begin the conservation of water," the agency warned.

Customers were also told to boil water for five minutes before drinking it. A similar "drinking water notice" is in effect in Hampton and York County.

Despite the downed trees still on roadways, extensive damage to homes in some areas and visits to affected communities by Ridge, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Virginia Sens. George Allen and John Warner, the power outage still seemed to be the number one topic on people's minds.

Hawn, who had eaten ice cream for lunch with her children rather than watch it melt, said they were able to return to their home in the evening and could open the windows to let in a breeze. Daytime temperatures here have been in the 80s.

She said she had a portable generator but it was on its last legs.

"I'm just tired of this whole mess," she said. "I've just had it."

Hawn came to the Salvation Army Community Center here for lunch on Saturday with her two children and said they planned to return for a hot dinner as well.

Salvation Army officials said they had been serving hundreds of meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals were also being served at Salvation Army Community Centers in Portsmouth and Suffolk and were being distributed at seven mobile kitchens. Baptists from Virginia and South Carolina were doing the cooking.

"Anybody who doesn't have power, who is unable to prepare meal, or has food in their refrigerators or freezers that is no longer edible can come here and enjoy three meals a day," promised a Salvation Army official.

For Hawn, who rode out the storm in her home , "I was sitting on the sofa in my TV room just waiting for it to happen", the lack of electricity has not prevented taking a shower, although she would prefer one with hot water.

"We're taking showers," she said. "We just shut our eyes and pretend we're in a lake, a nice cool lake. It's no colder than that."

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