Violent Storm Leaves 32,000 Powerless

Trees and branches lie across houses and utility wires along Brunett Avenue in Silver Spring. Pepco customers in Montgomery County and the District lost power after the storm.
Trees and branches lie across houses and utility wires along Brunett Avenue in Silver Spring. Pepco customers in Montgomery County and the District lost power after the storm. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Abel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005

Thousands of residents of the District and Montgomery County lost power after a fast-moving storm blew through the area early yesterday, bringing down power lines, uprooting trees and frightening more than a few people.

More than 30,000 Pepco customers were without lights and air-conditioning late yesterday. In some cases, residents said the utility company told them their power would not be restored until today or tomorrow, expected to be the start of several days with temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm punched its way through the region, leaving severe damage in some pockets, including the 400 block of Columbia Road NW, where a towering pecan tree crashed through Benjamin Richardson's roof. Other areas experienced little or none of the storm.

Richardson was in bed when a lightning strike lighted up his room just after 2:30 a.m.

"Then it struck again real loud, and I decided to get up and go to the bathroom to look out the windows," he said. Minutes later, his roof collapsed, and the tree landed on his bed.

Richardson, who rushed out of his house, said the second floor was destroyed. But he did not lose power or air-conditioning in the rest of the house.

Others did, including D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who said he had received numerous calls from constituents without power.

The number of outages peaked yesterday morning with 52,000 of Pepco's roughly 725,000 customers without power, said Robert Dobkin, spokesman for Pepco.

He said most customers would have their power back by tonight, but it would take until tomorrow morning to restore power to everyone.

As of 3 p.m., 32,600 Pepco customers in Montgomery County and the District were without power, Dobkin said.

Pepco said storm damage was concentrated along the Georgia Avenue corridor from southern Montgomery County through the District and into Prince George's County.

The D.C. Department of Transportation received more than 100 calls about damage caused by trees as well as reports of malfunctioning traffic signals at about 20 intersections across the city, spokesman Bill Rice said.

"It's probably the strongest thunderstorm we've had in the D.C. area this summer," said James Brotherton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling.

"What happened is typical, but the way it came together is pretty sudden."

Meteorologists issued severe thunderstorm warnings before heavy rain came, along with lighting and wind gusts of about 60 mph.

Brotherton said the storm was the result of a weak cold front that moved down from Pennsylvania, slamming into moist air.

He said the bad weather popped up about midnight from about Frederick east to around Baltimore along Interstate 70.

Samuel Compton said the storm rumbled past his house in the 6600 block of Third Street NW.

About 2:30 a.m., lightning hit a tree next to his house, then a power line set his Lincoln Town Car on fire.

Compton, 82, decided against going outside to rescue his car. The fire department came instead.

"It was blazing, and the firefighters were afraid it was going to explode because I had just filled it up with gas," Compton said.

Despite the damage, Rich Hitchens, a National Weather Service forecaster, cautioned against comparing the weekend storm to Hurricane Isabel, which struck the region in 2003.

"Don't confuse the two," he said. "This was just a thunderstorm, not a hurricane."

Staff writers Michael Laris and Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company