A Fourth of July in the dark for many in Washington area days after storm

July 5, 2012

The Fourth of July was another day of misery for tens of thousands of Washington area residents still waiting for power, even as utility crews worked through the holiday to fix downed lines.

As revelers celebrated at beaches, parades and picnics, about 46,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity on a fifth day of blistering heat. By early Thursday, the number of customers without power had dropped below 38,000, according to information posted on the Web sites of utility companies. That total included about 19,000 in Montgomery County, 13,600 in Northern Virginia, 3,700 in Prince George’s County and 1,000 in the District.

In the aftermath of Friday’s devastating storm, Independence Day celebrations were canceled in Kensington, South Germantown, Rockville and Gaithersburg to free up police and fire personnel for emergencies. But the Fourth went on as planned in many places, with parades in Great Falls, the District, Takoma Park, University Park, Dale City, Laurel and other communities.

Two of the three buildings used at Hains Point by the National Park Service, which oversees Independence Day celebrations on the Mall, had been without power since Friday night. Even so, thousands gathered on the Mall for a concert featuring Josh Turner, Kool & the Gang and the National Symphony Orchestra. Thousands more joined them for a 17-minute fireworks extravaganza that began a little after 9 p.m. and filled the sky with pinks, greens, purples and reds, whites and blues.

A line of powerful thunderstorms that had loomed as an ominous possibility throughout the day passed west of the city. Grant Faller packed up his lawn chairs and cooler after the pyrotechnics ended with a satisfied look.

“I’m 59,” said Faller, of Hyattsville, “and I’ve been coming here since I was 29.” The show had not disappointed.

Officially, normal is just around the corner. Pepco officials announced that they expected to have power restored to more than 90 percent of the utility’s customers by Wednesday night. That is days earlier than the utility had announced previously.

But Pepco’s speeded-up timeline was of little consolation to those whose homes still were in the dark — or who were sitting in houses with no electricity when they answered an automated utility phone call telling them their power had been restored.

Signs of frustration

Many people expressed their frustration the old-fashioned way, with handwritten messages on placards that were hung from utility poles like so many “Wanted” posters.

Along Route 29 in Silver Spring on Wednesday morning, a woman was angrily hammering a series of signs into non-functioning utility poles as holiday traffic streamed by her. Each sign succinctly expressed the irritation shared by thousands in the same boat: “5 Days No Lite.”

Another sign on River Road described the result — “Pepco: very warm humans feeling forgotten.”

And on Tenbrook Drive in Silver Spring, one desperate resident posted a couple of signs, including one that read: “Loss of Hope 4th of July Cancelled Inhumane!”

Not long after the sign appeared, four utility trucks from Florida pulled up to repair the downed lines, said Genevieve Bowles, 22, an elementary school aide who lives on the street. The sign disappeared, perhaps removed by the workers.

The arrival of the trucks after five long days without electricity sparked an impromptu block party as neighbors poured into the street to watch the crew members work. If residents finally had their power restored Wednesday, Bowles said, most people would celebrate the Fourth of July “by cranking the AC.”

Bowles later said her power came on about 7:20 p.m.

Alexandria City Council member Rob Krupicka (D), who lives in the Del Ray neighborhood, said there were still many pockets of the city that lacked power. But his immediate neighborhood was back on.

“There were cheers on my block,” he said.

Elsewhere, anger boiled over as the temperature rose, climbing again into the 90s by midday.

“Our neighborhoods — Tilden Woods and Luxmanor in Rockville — are without power and have made numerous reports by phone and app only to find our reports dropped, falsely reported as restored, or crews assigned then reported as no assigned crew,” one resident, Toby Levin, said in an e-mail. “This system should be investigated. Pepco PR is not credible, and our utility commission needs to be replaced. We have downed poles with wires that are not even marked.”

Similar complaints were being voiced across the region, especially in hard-hit Montgomery County, where the majority of Pepco outages occurred, and in portions of Alexandria served by Dominion. Automated systems and computer programs, which the power companies rely on to tell them where problems remain, were proving to be a problem.

Clay Anderson, a spokesman for Pepco, said the automated calls are placed after crews make repairs to feeder stations that serve a bloc of customers. However, some homes have specific problems, such as a blown fuse or circuit breaker, not recognized by Pepco’s computerized system for logging repairs.

The calls ask customers to press 1 if their power is restored and 2 if it is not, but many people apparently are hanging up before they get to that part of the message.

“Everyone’s frustrated at this point,” Anderson said. “After Day 4 or Day 5 of an outage in a heat wave, customers — and I’m one — the last thing I want to hear is my power is on and it’s not.”

Daisy Pridgen, a spokeswoman for Dominion, said that sometimes the automated calls went out after crews made one repair, only to find out later that another section of the line still needed work.

The outages were causing havoc with cable and Internet service in some places.

Aimee Metrick, a spokeswoman for Comcast, said most people should have their service restored when power comes back on in their homes.

“That being said, given the severity of the winds and rain that arose from Friday’s storm, we are also seeing some more extensive damage caused by falling trees, poles and more that will take longer to repair,” she said.

Out-of-town help

The storm knocked out power to more than 1 million households in the region, prompting appeals to out-of-town utility workers for help repairing downed lines. A crew from E & E Power Line in Canada came to assist Pepco, leaving Canada on Sunday night — Canadian Independence Day. The danger of their job was underscored Tuesday night, when a utility crew member from Florida working to restore power in Loudoun County was killed after her truck crashed into a semi-trailer in Bluemont.

The Virginia death toll rose to 12 after a person who was struck by a falling tree on Monday died Tuesday, state officials reported. The Maryland toll remained at seven dead.

Despite the pall that the storm cast over Independence Day, in some places the holiday unfolded like a Norman Rockwell vision of America.

Carrie Bland, 45, and Ruth White, 41, were among the few spectators at the University Park Fourth of July parade. Most of the community, they said, was marching past them.

“Everyone’s in it and not watching it,” Bland said, sitting in a lawn chair next to a red-white-and-blue blanket. “Someone’s got to.”

The parade was an old-fashioned procession of bikes, wagons and decorated pets.

Although power has been restored to most of the town’s residents, Mayor John Rogard Tabori said a dozen households were still without it Wednesday morning.

For some, the holiday was neither celebration nor grueling storm cleanup. It was a workday.

Richard Woodyard and his friends set up shop selling iced bottles of water at Rhode Island and Florida avenues in Northwest. They waited in the shade for customers to drive up.

Woodyard, who is unemployed, said he applies for jobs most mornings and sells chilled water in the midday heat. On Wednesday, he hoped to sell enough water to buy his son some fireworks.

“Why should he have to suffer just because I’m unemployed?” Woodyard asked.

On a good day, Woodyard and his three friends can make a profit of $75 to $90.

But police sometimes issue citations for the unlicensed vendors, shutting them down and turning their meager profit into a steep loss. When the first patrol car passed them, they hid their water bottles. But a second car came 20 minutes later and stopped. Four officers emerged to shut down the sellers and cite them.

The heat wave did not deter a celebration by some of the United States’ newest citizens.

At Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington, 100 immigrants were sworn in as citizens. Seated under a blazing sun as a fife and drum corps drilled on the lawn nearby, they were formally welcomed by an actor playing Washington in his revolutionary uniform.

“Now, after 20 years, I will have a passport to say I am a true American, and I will show it with pride,” said Kashif Ghaznafar, 38, a Pakistani-born man who owns and manages a 7-Eleven in Manassas. His wife, Aysha, and son Mohammed, 6, were with him.

“Where are we going after this?” he prompted the boy. “You remember. We’re going to visit President Lincoln.”

James Buck, Pam Constable, Margaret Ely, Marissa Evans, Lynda Robinson, Katherine Shaver, Patricia Sullivan, Ted Trautman and Mihir Zaveri contributed to this report.

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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