Eastern power outages could last week

Giovanny Alvarez, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail to a residence in Washington, Monday, July 2, 2012.
Evan Vucci

At a CVS pharmacy, Mahesh Tickle did the best he could. He had no cash register, so he made change with loose bills and coins stuffed inside a Ziploc bag. Tickle filled what prescriptions he could and fielded questions from customers wondering if medications such as insulin had spoiled.

Some people said the destruction over the weekend was reminiscent of that caused by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Some backup utility crews arrived Sunday in Maryland, but many were not expected until sometime Monday. That's because the storm arrived so quickly, unlike hurricanes, which typically approach with several days of warning and give out-of-state crews plenty of time to get into place.

After Isabel, it took electricity supplier Pepco eight days to restore power to most of the 500,000-plus customers in Washington and the surrounding areas. About 443,000 lost power at the peak of this storm, and restoration work will likely last into the weekend.

Last year, it took Baltimore Gas and Electric company eight and a half days to restore power to all 750,000 customers who lost power during Hurricane Irene. This time, the power company initially confronted more than 600,000 people without power. It said restoration efforts will extend into the weekend.

BGE said in a letter posted on its website that it would take hundreds of thousands of man-hours to clear debris and work through outages. Crews are working around the clock in 16-hour shifts.

"This type of widespread, extensive damage also complicates our ability to quickly provide accurate restoration times, especially when original damage assessments are revised upon closer inspection of the work required," the letter said.

Some customers were getting impatient Monday.

"This has happened time after time and year after year, and it seems as if they're always unprepared," said John Murphy, a professional chauffeur from Burtonsville, Md., who was waiting for Pepco to restore power Monday to the homes of himself and his mother and sister, who live nearby. "The new neighborhoods are designed with underground power lines but the old neighborhoods, they don't want to spend the money to put them underground."

Utility workers restored a steady electricity flow to Leslie Saltsman's home in Potomac on Monday afternoon. But the enormous cherry tree blocking her driveway won't be removed until later this week.

Saltsman, a nurse who takes care of her elderly mother, watched as linemen in a bucket truck repaired cables above streets lined with piles of tree branches and trunk sections. She said she was irritated by the heat but not by Pepco.

"They're doing as much as they can," she said. "I'm not frustrated with the power company at all."

However, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has been blunt that the utilities must work faster: "No one will have his boot further up Pepco's and BGE's backsides than I will," O'Malley said Sunday.

Pepco spokeswoman Myra Oppel said the differences between storms can be significant. Two storms could have the same number of customers with outages, but the root of the problem could be downed wires in one situation and downed poles in another. But repairing poles takes a lot longer.

As a result, the length of time it takes to restore power "depends on what damage has occurred, not the number of outages," Oppel said.

In the case of Friday night's storms, crews are contending with trees that have to be removed before crews can get to damaged infrastructure.

She said the fact that neighboring states were also hard-hit meant many utilities were competing to get the same backup crews for help.

In Baltimore County, Eveena Felder, a registered nurse, had been relying on air-conditioned public areas to keep cool during the day and a fan to help her family sleep.

"We've purchased a ton of batteries, that's where most of our money has gone," Felder said. "Turn the fan on and keep still, don't move, less energy."

Officials were especially concerned about people in isolated rural areas, such as Greenbrier County, W.Va.

"They have no radio station. They have no TV station. They have no communications because without power, they don't have phones," said Lt. Col. David Lester of the West Virginia National Guard.

Back at the nursing home, the cable was out as well, so in the common rooms with generator power the center played movies on old VHS tapes, including the 1932 classic "Grand Hotel."

Margaret Foster and Helen Ofsharick, 93 and 95 respectively, passed the time outside.

"You wouldn't want to live this way more than a day or so," Foster said. "There are sick people here, or people who don't think too well. They need help."