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Washington-area outages ‘almost unprecedented’

Scorching heat adds to woes as residents wait for electricity

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2012

Outages numbered in the hundreds of thousands for a second day, as officials warned residents across Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia that power might not be restored until late in the week, and crews worked in temperatures nearing triple digits to make repairs from a devastating storm that claimed more than a dozen lives.

"We're just praying for the power to come back," Maseray Sesay said as she hauled two bags of ice out of an Alexandria Harris Teeter.

Ms. Sesay said power had been out in her home in Bradford Court since Friday night and that the heat was taking its toll on her family, "especially the kids."

"I've been giving them bowls of ice to drink. We just sit outside because it's too hot inside."

Power outages, property damage and temperatures feeling like they are in the triple digits made Sunday miserable for many. Precarious road conditions, rerouted traffic and nonfunctioning traffic lights are adding up to make Monday's return to work another epic event.

On Sunday evening, the D.C. Metro system urged customers to allow extra time to travel to work Monday. Some Metro trains may be traveling slowly because of limited power, and some Metrobuses have been rerouted because of storm debris and downed power lines.

During a conference call Sunday afternoon, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell called the storm and the resulting outages a "major, major event."

"The scope and scale of the power outages affecting every region of the state is almost unprecedented," he said.

Rodney Blevins, vice president of Dominion Virginia Power, said the outage was the third-largest ever in the state and the only non-hurricane outage in the top five.

At 6 p.m., Dominion Virginia reported about 227,000 outages in the Northern Virginia area, with a little more than 343,000 outages statewide.

The power company is bringing in more than 1,000 line workers from 13 states and Quebec to assist in the recovery.

Mr. Blevins said that from a height of 1 million outages, 80 percent to 85 percent of service should be restored by Tuesday night, with 90 percent to 95 percent back by Thursday. Nearly all remaining outages should be restored by Saturday, with the hardest-hit areas completed by Sunday.

Officials confirmed the death of a seventh person in the state, a Montgomery County rescue worker, attributed to the storm.

According to the Associated Press, at least six other people were killed in Virginia, including a 90-year-old woman who was asleep in her bed when a tree slammed into her home. Two cousins in New Jersey were killed when a tree fell onto their tent while camping. Two were killed in Maryland, one in Ohio, one in Kentucky and one in the District.

In the Beverley Hills community of Alexandria, which has a history of heavy storm damage, residents found felled trees — many well over 50 feet tall — blocking streets and even the front doors of some homes.

Surveying the end of his block, which was impassable because of an enormous tree that stretched across the roadway and across the roof of a car, Tom Hewson said his home was spared but is now serving as a recharging station for neighbors' electronics.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley toured cooling centers Sunday morning in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"There's been an unprecedented number of outages in a very unprecedented sort of storm," he said. "We've made some progress, but we still have a lot more work to do."

Mr. O'Malley said at an evening news briefing that the state was suffering from an unexpected blow.

"We took a hurricane punch without the three to four days of hurricane warning," Mr. O'Malley said.

The wind was what made the storm so deadly and powerful when it tore through the area late Friday night, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Elliott.

The storm, called a derecho, is a "large, long-lived area of very strong, very straight-line wind," Mr. Elliott said.

Winds hit 60 mph all the way from Indiana to the D.C. area, Mr. Elliott said, and "it didn't help that it hit 104 that day. All that heat and energy was still around when the storm got here."

The area last endured a derecho in 2006, but this one, Mr. Elliott said, "was worse."

"I do want to be clear that what happened Friday night isn't very likely to happen again. We could see storms that could be severe, but a wide swath like that is very rare."

Nonessential Maryland state employees have been granted liberal leave Monday, Mr. O'Malley said.

Prince George's County schools and offices are closed Monday. Montgomery County schools and all events are canceled on Monday and Tuesday.

At 6 p.m., Pepco said about 185,000 of its 310,000 Montgomery County customers were without power.

Pepco President Tom Graham said outages could remain until Friday — a timeline that Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett called "unacceptable" during a morning news conference with Mr. O'Malley in Gaithersburg.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III shared similar sentiments for his county, which had 83,000 of 226,000 customers suffering outages.

"We're working really hard to make sure the power is on as quickly as possible," Mr. Baker said. "We're making progress but not nearly as quickly as I wanted."

In order to handle the demand, Pepco brought in crews from out of state. By Monday morning, Mr. O'Malley estimated about 1,300 out-of-state crew members would be working on the power grid.

All of Maryland's large power transmitters and substations were back up and running by Sunday, Mr. O'Malley said. He said that crews are now trying to restore power to residents and businesses, and crews will first concentrate on places with the largest numbers of affected customers.

For Riverdale resident Robert St. Denny, restoration can't come soon enough.

Standing among dozens of navy blue cots in the humid gym of Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, sweat beading on his brow, Mr. St. Denny said it could be a week before the apartment complex where he lives puts a new roof on his building.

His family lives on the sixth floor of Park Tanglewood, a seven-story apartment complex in Riverdale.

At the apartment's parking lot, only a few miles from the school, at least a half-dozen vehicles sat in their parking spots, windows blown out and roofs crushed. Enormous pieces of roofing hung on power lines, weighing the electrical wires down to the ground.

Many of Mr. St. Denny's neighbors are staying at the emergency shelter, which offers meals, showers and cots for people displaced by the storm.

On Sunday, Mr. Baker and Mr. O'Malley toured the emergency shelter, offering smiles and handshakes to residents, and assurances that the county and state are doing all they could to get things back to normal.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, joined Mr. O'Malley on his Sunday afternoon conference call. Because Friday's storm was so unconventional, she was not sure about federal aid.

"In terms of federal assistance, this is unprecedented," she said. "We will have to look at how to do that."

Federal workers have the option Monday for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.

In the District, 67,000 outages remained Sunday among 257,305 customers affected, the utility company reported.

City officials said five health care facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals, 46 traffic signals and eight schools remained without power.

D.C. Public Schools are closed Monday to all summer school and community activities, and administrative DCPS personnel should not report to work.

City-employed crews removed debris from roadways, directed motorists at nonfunctioning traffic lights and cleared downed trees.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray monitored the situation during his flight back from China, where he spent the past week on business, his spokesman said. A joint emergency command continued to direct recovery efforts from the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency's Southeast headquarters throughout the weekend.

Meanwhile, the D.C. government advertised cooling centers through the city for people without power, including five libraries in select locations around the city, six recreation centers and three churches that volunteered to take in residents.

The District Department of Transportation reported that 69 trees had fallen on public space, although not in roadways. Nearly half of them, or 31, were in Ward 3, officials said.

According to the National Weather Service, Monday temperatures are expected to be slightly cooler, with highs in the low 90s.

Matthew Cella, Tom Howell Jr. and Megan Poinski contributed to this report.

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