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Unexpected ice storm hits MD 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


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


"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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