In Chevy Chase, the haves and have-nots

Correction: Earlier versions of this article, including in the Monday’s print edition of The Washington Post, misstated the day that Nikki Mueller was drinking wine on her porch with family and friends. It was Saturday.

Nikki Mueller savored a glass of red wine on her back porch in Chevy Chase with family and friends on Saturday, the second day of Washington’s epic power outage. They had plenty to celebrate, mainly their working air-conditioning system.

Just one element marred the pleasant moment on Brookville Road in the Maryland suburbs and gave the government lawyer a twinge of guilt: Her neighbor right behind her on Georgia Street still had no power. Neither did her neighbor two houses down. And neither did several other blocks of homes that surround hers.

“I felt guilty drinking wine outside because at least I could go back inside our cool house,” Mueller said. “It’s just weird. We have power. The restaurant across the street has power, but some of our neighbors don’t.”

Natural disasters have a natural way of doing this. They mysteriously transform some people into the haves and the people next door into have-nots. Friday night’s storm and fast-moving winds left plenty of neighborhoods in Virginia, the District and Maryland perplexed. Why one block but not the other? What offers should those with power make to the powerless?

And most critically: What about connecting a power line from a neighbor’s home so you can run a fan and charge cellphones, laptops and iPads?

As of 10:30 p.m., 167,668 customers of three utility companies in Montgomery County were without power. While Chevy Chase’s affluent residents do not suffer nearly the same deprivations as the region’s homeless or impoverished, their expensive real estate conveys neither protection from violent storms nor quick fixes from Pepco.

So on Saturday morning, after enduring a night with no power, Andrew Morral on Georgia Street called up Mueller.

“I saw the caller ID when my phone rang and immediately knew, ‘Oh, he wants to run a cable,’ ” Mueller recalled with a wry smile.

His request was part and parcel of the Mueller-Morral diplomatic relationship. When she has lost power in the past and he hasn’t, she has run a line to his home.

Saturday afternoon, with sweat beading down his face, Morral said he was grateful for his neighbor’s generosity in a time of need. He attached a long power cable from Mueller’s house, snaked it across his back yard and spooled it into his kitchen. He seemed to have it all: A box fan whirred, electronic devices were fired up and his refrigerator kept food cold.

But still he worried. His home seems to lose power far more frequently than Mueller’s.

He is gloomy in his outlook for his family’s return to normalcy. They’ve talked about going to a hotel.

What about getting a generator?

“Takes up a lot of space,” he said, also noting that a neighbor’s generator can be noisy.

Morral’s neighbors on Georgia Street seemed to mostly be without power. Their houses were dark. But one, a few homes down, appeared to have power. A handwritten note left on a neighbor’s door explained:

“We plugged our refrigerator on to your outside plug. Hope that’s okay. Pepco said hopefully by midnight but we didn’t want to take a chance . . .

Paul Thompson, another powerless person on Georgia Street, drove around the various villages within Chevy Chase — Martin’s Additions, Section 3, Section 5 — and could not figure things out. He marveled at the few number of powerful people with lights turned on.

“The Brookville Supermarket — they’re open. La Ferme — it’s open,” Thompson, a government attorney, said of the neighborhood French bistro as he drove along Brookville Road before turning onto nearby streets. “Here on Raymond. Nothing. No power.” Then he drove onto Bradley Lane. “See!” he said, pointing at one home. “The light!”

“It might have to do with an old grid,” he ruminated before driving onto Connecticut Avenue. “There’s the 4-H headquarters — I wonder if they have power.”

Late in the afternoon, Thompson said, he suffered one of the worst indignities that a have-not can face: His power came on. For 30 seconds. A tease.

“You pay for a high-end neighborhood,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean you’re above the frailties of life.”

Andy Leon Harney, Section 3’s village manager, said about 60 percent of her community’s homes as of Saturday were without power. The reason, she said, is that the storm seriously damaged one of the two main feeder lines that bring power to Section 3.

Harney said she’s been told by Pepco that 90 percent of Section 3’s homes should be restored to power by 11 p.m. — on Friday.

“We’re hopeful it will be a lot sooner. We had flickers on one of our streets today,” she said. “The nice thing is that in our neighborhood the people who have power have opened the doors to those who don’t.”

Back on Georgia Street, Nathan Reeves, 34, a partner at an IT consulting firm, felt that because he enjoyed a 72-degree air-conditioned house, he needed to give back. He allowed some neighbors to come by and charge their phones. Even though he has three young daughters — including two 4-month-old twins — he’s invited those without power to stay at his home. (No takers so far. He suspects people fear noisy children more than heat.)

But one family, just a few houses down, made the ultimate request.

Was there room in Reeves’s freezer, by chance? He obliged in the spirit of the neighborhood, and now his freezer is stacked high.

“The family there took out everything from their fridge,” he said, “and took off for the beach.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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