- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Joe Sumego stood in the middle of Valley View Drive in the Franconia area of Fairfax yesterday and watched a colleague slice apart one of Hurricane Isabel’s first Washington-area victims — a tall tree that snapped in two.

One half of the tree rested on an overhead power line, wiping out electricity to the neighborhood. Mr. Sumego, a lineman for Dominion Virginia Power, and his crew came to restore power once a second group of workers had removed the tree.

The men arrived at about 2:45 p.m., their first big job of the day. Mr. Sumego was certain it wouldn’t be their last.

“This weekend’s going to be a mess,” he said.

More than 374,000 people lost power in the District and its suburbs yesterday, and many more are expected to be without power today.

Utility companies said they would begin assessing damage and restoring power today, the worst of the Category 2 storm having been expected to pass through region at 2 a.m. today.

“This storm is one of the most serious we’ve ever had in our service area,” said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, which serves 2 million people in the state and in North Carolina.

On Valley View Drive, orange cones closed off both ends of the street while the crews worked. A bucket truck hoisted Jose Riveria above the power line as he used a chain saw to take the felled tree apart, piece by piece.

An almost-comforting rhythm marked the next few hours: Mr. Riveria’s power tool buzzed. A limb fell. Sawdust competed with raindrops in a race for the asphalt below.

Spokesmen for Dominion Virginia Power and the region’s other utilities said they would have crews out for only a few hours yesterday afternoon to respond to problems like the fallen tree on Valley View Road. When the rain and wind picked up, the utilities said they would bring their workers in.

Once the storm ended, the crews would return and work through the weekend if needed, the spokesmen said.

Mr. Sumego, a 14-year Dominion veteran, was prepared for the worst.

“I think it’s pretty bad. The problem is the ground has been so saturated all summer. You get a constant wind, it uproots trees left and right,” he said.

The Dominion crew’s work provided some late-afternoon entertainment for the Valley View Road residents, who found themselves stuck at home on a day with no electricity.

Forget reality television; Hurricane Isabel was reality, and these folks had a front-row seat.

Most neighbors gawked from their living-room windows. A few wielded umbrellas and came out for a closer look.

Several neighbors asked the workers when their lights would come back on. At about 5 p.m., the men began telling residents they would be in the dark for only another half-hour or so.

“We appreciate everything you’re doing,” one man told Mr. Sumego before dashing back up his driveway.

Residents in the Washington area lost power early in the day, before the winds started really picking up, because of fallen trees, spokesmen for the utilities said.

“For us, this whole event will be 90 percent tree-related,” said Phil Sparks, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power.

By 7 p.m. yesterday, Pepco reported 220,000 customers without power. Dominion Virginia reported about 144,000 Northern Virginia customers without power.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. had 10,000 customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties without power.

A Pepco spokesman said 70,000 customers in Prince George’s County, 72,000 in Montgomery County and 78,000 in the District lost power.

“But that’s just the front tip of the storm,” said spokesman Tom Welle.

Pepco has 700,000 customers in the area.

Utility officials said they were well-prepared for the hurricane but that it could be several days before electricity is restored to everyone.

Last month, Pepco received criticism from angry customers and government officials for its inability to restore power quickly to all homes and businesses after thunderstorms. More than 250,000 people were left without electricity, some for up to six days, when thunderstorms blew through late last month.

Pepco yesterday said it had 700 crews, including 300 from out of state, ready to work on power restoration.

Dominion Virginia had a work force of 7,000, with crew members from as far away as Texas, Florida and Ohio.

BGE mobilized more than 400 field crews, and another 400 external crews were expected to arrive from out of state.

Pepco and BGE plan to distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds of dry ice to customers in the most severely affected areas so customers can keep their perishable food cold.

Pepco will hand out dry ice in the parking lot of RFK Stadium, at the Westfield Shoppingtown at Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton, and at Landover Mall on Route 202. The opening times for the outlets will be decided after the storm.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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