- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A line of powerful thunderstorms yesterday thwarted the recovery from Hurricane Isabel, as some elected Maryland officials criticized utility companies for not restoring power to tens of thousands of people.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, have called for hearings when electricity is restored to all customers.

“It’s still slow going because here we are five days later and we still have streets closed because of downed power lines,” Mr. Duncan said yesterday. “My frustration is rising. But let’s get through this crisis and then we’ll do an assessment. For now, we’re at Pepco’s mercy, just like everybody else.”

Six days after Isabel barreled through the Washington area, tens of thousands of Pepco customers remain without power, including 45,000 in Montgomery, 25,000 in the District and 28,000 in Prince George’s County. Dominion Virginia Power has 33,500 customers without power, and Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) has 3,000 in the Maryland suburbs.

About 70,000 customers lost power during rainstorms Monday night and early yesterday morning, officials said.

“We know people have lost patience, but we ask for their understanding,” Pepco President William J. Sim said during a news conference yesterday. “We have 900 crews working. They are working 12-hour shifts.

“They have restored power to 400,000 in four days. That is a phenomenal amount of work … The damage is everywhere. … We’ll have almost 1,000 crews in here tomorrow.”

Power outages in the Baltimore area had been reduced to about 133,000 customers since Isabel but went up again by about 50,000 yesterday, said Rob Gould, a BGE spokesman.

The weather system yesterday, which dumped five inches of rain in the region, hampered efforts of utility companies and snarled traffic for hours during the morning commute.

“The rain is going to slow but not stop some of the work on power repairs,” said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

A giant sinkhole in Frederick, Md., closed Interstate 70 for several hours and shut down Maryland Rail Commuter service. The sinkhole caved in about 100 yards from the MARC tracks. A tornado in Richmond felled trees and twisted and snapped power lines, frustrating many residents who were just starting to recover from Isabel.

Some counties in Northern Virginia yesterday evacuated or rescued residents from low-lying areas near rising rivers and creeks. Loudoun County fire and emergency crews rescued seven persons from two homes on Oatlands Road, authorities said.

“We also had people in three cars get stuck in flooded intersections who needed to be rescued,” said Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for the Loudoun County Department of Fire and Rescue.

By midafternoon, county fire and rescue crews had responded to 115 incidents, 85 of them weather-related. “It’s unbelievable,” Miss Maguire said.

The storms also delayed rail service in the region, one day after public transportation was able to resume under normal schedules. Some Amtrak passengers waited until noon to leave Union Station because of heavy flooding on tracks in Landover.

Virginia Railway Express trains slowed to 15 miles an hour during the morning commute. Metrorail service was disrupted when floodwaters blocked the entrances to the Silver Spring and Farragut West stops in the morning. Metro buses avoided some side streets still blocked by trees downed during Isabel.

MARC officials canceled all service to and from Frederick because of the sinkhole, which had opened up between the rail carrier’s Frederick and Monocacy stations.

“The fact that it’s so close to the tracks contributed to our decision,” said Richard Scher, a spokesman for Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA). “It’s certainly close enough that it could cause a problem.”

Geologist James Reger with the Maryland Geological Survey blamed the sinkhole on recent heavy rain and runoff. The storms yesterday left five inches of water; Isabel had left two. “You can never put your finger on one single cause, but most likely all the rain we’ve had supersaturated the ground and the soil didn’t have the strength to hold itself up,” he said.

Mr. Reger warned that more sinkholes could open up with the grounds so sodden.

The afternoon commute also posed a problem for those trying to get home. Road crews shut down Interstates 495 and 95 on both sides of the bridge to remove a 180-foot-wide sign. Crews reopened all lanes by 4:30 p.m., said Valerie B. Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Dozens of other roads in flood-prone sections in the region also remained closed, forcing commuters to take detours.

The storms also led to some school closures, including 18 in Montgomery County, where police said a 16-year-old girl was hit by a car after she got off a bus to walk to school.

The accident occurred on the eastbound side of University Boulevard at Glenville Road at 8:19 a.m. The student, from Montgomery Blair High School, was taken to a hospital. She suffered non-life-threatening injuries. No charges have been filed, Montgomery County Police Department spokeswoman Lucille Baur said.

Sixteen schools in the District also remained closed. D.C. officials said 93 intersections are still blank, and that police officers are directing traffic at 77 major road crossings. Mayor Anthony A. Williams blamed the tough commute yesterday on widespread power outages, downed wires and felled trees throughout the city.

Most schools in the region will be open today.

D.C. Emergency Management Agency Director Peter LaPorte yesterday estimated that Isabel had caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to the city. Overall, insurers will pay out about $1 billion to cover losses, according to the New York-based Insurance Information Institute.

In Maryland, meanwhile, crews still had not restored power to more than 30 traffic lights in Montgomery County as of last night, said Kellie Boulware of the Maryland State Highway Administration. “We are hoping for things to improve, but we are dealing with severe weather,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski surveyed flooded sections of Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore on the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Ehrlich said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had opened an office at the Black River Neck Community Center to help people apply for disaster relief. FEMA opened two other centers in Annapolis and Fells Point in Baltimore.

Officials said yesterday that cleanup efforts have just begun in those communities. “There’s still a lot more to do before we close the book on Isabel,” Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer said.

State officials said 9,366 homes were reported destroyed or damaged by the storm, although reports have been received from only eight of the 24 Maryland jurisdictions. By yesterday afternoon, power remained out in about 284,705 homes in the Washington area, which includes Mr. Ridge’s home in Bethesda.

Isabel also caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Lab equipment, plumbing and ventilation systems were destroyed, and half the classrooms were rendered unusable, school officials said.

In Virginia, an F-0 tornado, with winds just under 70 mph, touched down in Nottoway County, felling more trees, damaging more homes and increasing power outages by 40,000.

A mobile home in neighboring Amelia County was thrown about 25 feet from its foundation and shredded. Large trees were felled in the Richmond area, some crashing into homes. Funnel sightings also were reported on the Northern Neck and the Maryland side of the Eastern Shore.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner urged patience from residents without power and water. “With a disaster of this magnitude, there are going to be problems, but we’re going to work through those problems,” he said.

Arlo Wagner, Brian DeBose, Matthew Cella, Robert Redding Jr. and Judith Person contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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