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Area Works to Recover From Storm Damages

By Maria Glod, Christy Goodman and Lexie Verdon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 6, 2008 1:24 PM

More than 40,000 homes and businesses remained without power this afternoon despite round-the-clock efforts by utility crews following the violent string of thunderstorms that struck the Washington area Wednesday afternoon.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties reopened their school systems today, although Sligo Middle School in Montgomery was still closed. Fairfax County, which was forced to close 27 schools midday yesterday because of power problems, said six elementary schools and Langley High School would not open this morning.

A two-alarm fire overnight at a Fairfax County apartment building without power was blamed on an unattended candle, said Lt. Raúl G. Castillo, a spokesman for the fire department. Two people were hospitalized following that blaze with injuries that were not believed to be life threatening, he said.

Power companies said the vast majority of people who were affected by the storms have their electricity repaired, and they hope to have nearly all restored today. But some scattered areas may not have power until tomorrow.

That power will come in handy today, when many families will be hoping to run air conditioning as a sweltering weekend approaches. A high pressure system over the Washington area will usher in summer conditions -- high heat and humidity. The National Weather Service reports that temperatures today could reach near 90 degrees, and it has issued an excessive heat watch for the weekend.

Yet those forecasts of higher temperatures, raised concerns for utility companies that air conditioners working overtime, coupled with outage restorations, could cause more problems, said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion Virginia Power spokeswoman. She said customers without power should turn off all appliances except for one lamp. After power is restored, she advised turning back on "only those they need, and then don't crank their air conditioners down too low."

"We don't want to overload the system," Anderson said.

The fire ths morning at the Monticello Garden apartments in the 7200 block of Parkwood Court in Falls Church was caused by a candle near a bed, he said. A woman who lived in the apartment was taken to the Washington Hospital Center with burns, but she was alert while being transported, Castillo said. Her son, the other occupant of the apartment, was not injured.

Another person from one of the other 10 units in the building was transported to Inova Fairfax Hospital. Six people were assisted from balconies and other parts of the building by firefighters, according to Castillo. Residents said they had been without power since the storm hit Wednesday.

Castillo said the blaze today was a reminder to people without electricity to use great care with lighted candles and portable generators, which if not properly ventilated can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

From Chesapeake Beach to Herndon, residents yesterday surveyed damage to houses battered by falling limbs and trees. The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado with gusts up to 85 mph touched down in Chesapeake Beach, peeling siding and portions of roofs from several houses and uprooting trees. A small tornado also hit Clarke County, Va., and officials continued to check reports that the storm spawned tornadoes in Fairfax County, Falls Church and Southern Maryland.

In Anne Arundel County, authorities said a 90-year-old woman was critically injured when her home caught fire in the storm. Four men working for a Maryland State Highway Administration contractor in Calvert County were injured by flying debris, and two remained hospitalized yesterday afternoon.

Power outages also disrupted schedules for thousands of area students yesterday. Fairfax schools opened yesterday, then dismissed students early, causing confusion and consternation among some parents. Montgomery and Prince George's counties canceled class yesterday, and several other districts closed only buildings without power. Many Montgomery schools with final exams set for today postponed them until Monday.

At Chesapeake Beach in Calvert, residents who spotted the tornado described trees uprooted and swirling as if in a blender. George Klein, owner of Tyler's Tackle Shop and Crab House, said that when the shop's windows burst, the flying glass cut a customer's neck. He drove the man, who needed 20 stitches, to a hospital.

Gary Luckett, who owns Traders Seafood, Steak and Ale in Chesapeake Beach, was proudly attending his daughter's high school graduation Wednesday, so he ignored his cellphone's nonstop buzzing. After she accepted her diploma, he took a call and learned that a portion of the restaurant's roof was torn off in the storm. The family had planned to have the graduation party there.

In Chesapeake Beach and communities across the Washington region, neighbors and local governments began assessing damage, contacting insurance companies and cleaning up. Luckett brought in refrigerator trucks to hold the restaurant's food. Chain saws growled as trees were cut up.

In Montgomery, where the storm hit hard in the communities of Germantown and Gaithersburg, officials scrambled to coordinate with Pepco late yesterday to restore power to traffic lights at 70 intersections, including major thoroughfares such as Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road. About 30 mostly residential roads remained closed because of downed power lines and trees and debris.

Fairfax officials opened school as usual, confident that power would be quickly restored. When it wasn't, they began dismissing students at almost 30 schools, upsetting many parents who didn't immediately get word. In many cases, children leaving school went to empty houses.

"This was a terrible communication breakdown," said Jeff Curtis, whose 7-year-old was dismissed early from Rolling Valley Elementary School in Springfield.

In a quiet Herndon neighborhood, Lollie Kim watched her son-in-law haul branches, small and large, from behind her two-story home. An oak tree had crashed into the family room. By midday, workers had taken away most of the tree -- all that was left were the scattered branches and twigs that had piled up and were scattered around the back yard.

"I now have a skylight," she said with a chuckle, referring to the 12-by-7 foot hole in her ceiling. Kim was home when the tree toppled in the wind. "I thought something had fallen in my kitchen," she said. But then she saw that something bigger and heavier had made its way through the roof.

After the storm Wednesday, about 500,000 customers and businesses across the region were without electricity. By 1 p.m. today, Pepco reported nearly 17,000 customers without power in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's. Baltimore Gas and Electric reported 7,800 outages among its area customers. In Northern Virginia, about 15,900 customers were without power, Dominion Virginia Power reported.

In Rhonda Gleeson's Severn Heights neighborhood in Anne Arundel, power remained out yesterday afternoon. The streets hummed with the sounds of chain saws and gas generators.

Gleeson and her daughter, Caroline, had huddled in the basement with their two dogs when the storm passed through. When they emerged, they found a tree had flattened three cars in their driveway.

Steve Andrews's house sustained the worst damage on his block. A towering tree demolished his backyard porch, and a second had fallen on his roof, almost crushing him and his family.

But yesterday afternoon, he and his neighbors were making plans for an evening cocktail hour. "What can you do?" Andrews said. "Everyone's safe. Most of the roads are still blocked off. We're just glad we're alive."

Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler, Daniel de Vise, Chris Jenkins, Daniel LeDuc, Ann E. Marimow, William Wan and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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