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Volume of storm damage astounds governors

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2011

PORT REPUBLIC, Md. — Cleo Parker has spent the four days since Hurricane Irene blew by without electricity and doesn't expect to get power restored for at least another week or two.

So each day, she drives a few miles from her small home in rural Calvert County to the nearest gas station to buy ice and gas for her generator, traveling a winding, two-lane road littered with downed cables and a frightening array of broken and toppled trees.

Some of the trees lean precariously above the road like archways while others sit on power lines, stretching them to the ground like drawn slingshots.

"I've seen some storms, but this is the worst one I've ever been through," said Miss Parker, 56, adding that fallen trees left small holes in her roof and partially ripped down her gutters. "But that's nothing compared to others."

While Irene delivered a glancing blow to much of the state causing power outages and only occasional destruction — it devastated Southern Maryland, where an inordinate number of people along the Chesapeake Bay's western shore have homes that were destroyed or heavily damaged.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state officials got their first look at the damage Tuesday, touring Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties to check on response efforts.

"It's a miracle, I think, that more people weren't injured," Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, said in Prince Frederick. "One of the things that you have to see to believe is the sheer volume of big, heavy trees that have been knocked down."

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell said cooperation between the state and federal government during Irene could not have gone more smoothly.

Mr. McDonnell, flanked by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Agriculture Todd Vilsack, said he participated in conference calls with President Obama on Friday and Saturday and had been in touch with Ms. Napolitano multiple times during the process.

"We planned for the worst, but we came out a little better than expected," he said.

Dominion Virginia Power reported Tuesday that 75 percent of the customers who lost power during the storm would have it restored by Wednesday night and that power was restored Tuesday night to all of Northern Virginia.

Maryland officials said utility companies have restored power to nearly 70 percent of the 822,000 households and businesses that lost electricity during the storm, but crews have had difficulty reaching some of the state's most affected areas.

The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative said it had restored power to about 72 percent of the 86,000 customers who lost power.

However, state House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, Calvert Republican, said the extreme damage and inaccessibility of many homes in wooded areas have combined to "overwhelm" emergency workers and utility crews.

"You just can't imagine it until you see it up close," said Mr. O'Donnell, who also toured the region. "This has basically knocked down an entire transmission and distribution system here in Southern Maryland."

Public schools in Calvert and St. Mary's counties remain closed.

Residents have made the best of a bad situation, said Guy Tomassoni, a Port Republic resident whose mother-in-law's home just a few hundred feet away for his was destroyed when a tree fell through the roof, essentially splitting the house in half.

She was inside the house the when tree hit and another smashed her car.

Mr. Tomassoni said their neighborhood was largely impassable after the storm, until residents with chainsaws cut and removed many downed trees.

"People are OK," he said. "We've got some machines and a lot of guys with chainsaws. It really demonstrates how great a community it is." SMECO crews are being assisted by workers from as far away as Louisiana and Georgia, Calvert County officials said.

Mr. O'Malley said three people in the state have died from the storm — a Queen Anne's County woman who was crushed when a tree fell on her chimney, another person who went into cardiac arrest and a Howard County resident who died Tuesday from carbon-monoxide poisoning after running a gas generator inside his home.

The governor warned that residents should always keep gas-powered generators outdoors, calling it one of the state's biggest remaining post-hurricane safety issues.

The governor praised utility crews for their work, and said crews from less affected areas could be dispatched to help in Southern Maryland in the coming days. He asked residents to remain patient.

"We just want to give folks the sense that with progress being made, they're not being forgotten," he said.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, also said that forewarnings from the state helped prevent further loss of life, noting that a tornado struck the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach after the area had been evacuated. There were four deaths in Virginia attributed to Irene.

The governor does not think lingering budget negotiations on Capitol Hill will preclude Virginia from receiving the help it needs.

Ms. Napolitano said the federal government would be ready and able to assist Virginians affected by the storm.

"I will leave Virginia today, but FEMA and [the Department of Homeland Security] will not leave."

FEMA and Virginia teams will now work together over the next three to four days as local governments compile their data so that hopefully by early next week, the state will be able to decide whether to apply for federal disaster relief, Mr. McDonnell said.

David Sherfinski reported from Richmond.

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