Hot and powerless on North Brook Lane


Linette Heart, 76, eats her lunch on the front steps of her home in Bethesda. Heart and others in her neighborhood still don’t have power. (JUANA ARIAS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

By Friday afternoon, the number of households still without power across the region had fallen below 7,000. One of them was on North Brook Lane in Bethesda and belongs to Don Caldwell, who was struggling to remember when he had ever felt so hot.

At 78 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Caldwell has plenty of summers with which he could compare the experience of sleeping in the basement for a full week in July, his wife on the couch, him tilted back in the La-Z-Boy, bare feet atop the glass coffee table.

“I don’t think ever, actually,” said the retired mechanical engineer, whose childhood in the concrete canyons otherwise known as the Bronx predates air conditioning.

And he still had to get through the 106-degree forecast for Saturday.

North Brook Lane was among the last of the region’s blocks to remain without power, a distinction that roiled its residents, many of them having decamped days earlier to friends’ houses and hotels rather than embrace a life perhaps better suited to Daniel Boone.

For most of the week, they believed that Pepco would restore their power by 11 p.m. Friday, based on the information that popped up on their computer screens when they punched in their addresses on the utility’s Web site.

But on Thursday, several said, they learned that their power might not come back until Sunday, perhaps extending their singular version of hell beyond a week.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Xavier Vila, a radio journalist for a Barcelona-based station who lives on the block.

Vila and his wife were among those who fled to friends’ homes. But he has returned every day to pick up mail and check for Pepco workers, two of whom he saw Thursday, as if they were a mirage, there for a few moments, then gone.

A week ago, at North Brook and Old Georgetown Road, a towering tree crashed down during an epic storm, officially kicking off a week of unforgiving suffocation inside the brick and clapboard houses on North Brook Lane.

On Friday morning, the tree remained toppled and entangled in a thicket of power lines.

“Where are they? I’m desperate,” Vila said.

He has called Pepco. He has tweeted Pepco.

Pepco tweeted back.

“I understand your frustration,” someone from the utility wrote Thursday.

“Please hang in there,” someone from the utility wrote 12 hours later. “Crews are working as fast and safely as they can.”

On Friday morning, Vila replied: “Shame on you. Not even in the Third World.”

By late Friday afternoon, two Pepco crews had arrived to begin repairs.

At the height of the outage, said Marcus Beal, a Pepco spokesman, a total of 443,000 households were without power. A week later, he said, the number was down to 1 percent of that total.

Neighborhoods such as the one surrounding North Brook Lane are often last on the list, after Pepco crews have repaired emergency services, such as hospitals, then infrastructure and then substations that serve tens of thousands of customers.

“At this point,” he said, “we’re literally working house by house.”

Everything should be restored by the end of Sunday, he said, if not before.

On Sycamore Street in Chevy Chase, the power came on about 2 p.m. Friday, news that Ann Marie Jablon learned from an exclamation point-studded e-mail sent by her babysitter.

Jablon made it home from her Capitol Hill office in time for the lights and air conditioning to go out again.

“A big letdown,” she said, although there was no need to call Pepco because a crew was still working on the block.

On North Brook Lane, Elizabeth Glover’s fury is mostly trained on Pepco, though she acknowledges some especially dark thoughts for her neighbor and his endlessly whirring generator.

Still, she has remained in her house, except for one night when she slept at her son’s place in Friendship Heights.

When it’s hotter outside than in her house, she shuts the windows. When it cools outside, even slightly, the windows go up.

She drinks water all day and all night. She takes showers. She spends a lot of time in museums.

“Endurance is what I’m about,” said Glover, 67, a marathon runner. “That’s why I haven’t had a heart attack.”

The Caldwells also refused to leave their house, partly because they don’t want to spend the money on a hotel and partly because their home is their home, for better or worse.

They spend their evenings in the basement, talking more than they’re accustomed to, their chatter meandering between memories of sailing trips they’ve taken and their favorite kinds of dogs and psychoanalyzing their friends.

At least once they have fantasized about drinking cool mint juleps, their imaginary glasses clinking with ice cubes.

One subject they have yet to broach are the joys of winter, a subject Caldwell said would likely trigger reminders of those frustrating times when they have had to wait and wait for snow-removal teams.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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