Power outages expected to linger days after Washington area storm

Severe thunderstorms felled trees and power lines across much of the Washington area Sunday afternoon, killing Four people and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
Map showing number of customers in the Pepco service area without electricity.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tens of thousands of people in the Washington region are likely to be without power for days, officials said Monday, as Pepco struggles to repair the damage from a ferocious storm Sunday that claimed three lives, produced hurricane-force winds and crippled neighborhoods.

Pepco officials said that it could be Thursday before all power is restored and that the utility had called in 350 crews from outside the area to help restore service to the almost quarter-million people without electricity.

The utility said the extra crews, which were summoned from an Ohio utility, would probably not be ready to join Pepco's 185 repair crews until Tuesday morning.

As thousands of residents across the area emptied refrigerators of spoiling food, sought cool air and thronged stores for flashlights, batteries and candles, Pepco weathered a day of criticism. Some residents complained of a slow response, and others were incensed when the utility's Web site broke down Monday morning, depriving customers of information for the rest of the day.

There were also complaints about Pepco's automated phone information service, which gave some callers erroneous information in the hours after the storm Sunday.

The weather system, which forecasters said probably did not include tornadoes, was still violent enough to uproot giant trees, snap utility poles and blow the surface of the Chesapeake Bay into six-foot waves. It was there that the storm's third death occurred.

Maryland Natural Resources Police said Warren D. Smith, 63, of Annapolis was apparently knocked off his watercraft while he and a friend, Elmer Sappington, 65, of Severn, raced their vehicles toward shelter at Sandy Point State Park as the storm approached the Bay Bridge.

In 60 mph winds, Sappington was also knocked off his watercraft. When he got back on, he saw Smith facedown in the water, police said. Sappington flagged down a passing tugboat, and Smith was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

"It was unbelievable," said Simon Jacobsen, a Georgetown architect who was on the bay aboard a 44-foot sailboat near Chesapeake Beach when the storm hit. "It was like those movies about the apocalypse, where a giant wave just rushes across the water. . . . It hit us like a fist."

The storm also claimed the lives of a 6-year-old boy, who died in his father's arms after he was struck by a falling limb in Loudoun County, and a mother of two who was killed when a tree fell on the minivan she was driving in College Park.

Chris Strong of the National Weather Service said that forecasters went to Montgomery County on Sunday and Monday to assess damage. He said they found evidence of wind gusts as high as 90 mph. Hurricane-force wind is considered 74 mph. Asked whether there had been tornadoes, he said: "It does not appear so, based on the radar and our damage surveys."

Meteorologists said the destruction was probably caused by "straight-line" winds sparked by a passing cold front's impact with Sunday's broiling heat and humidity. Leaves acted like sails, bending and breaking trees and limbs, said Bryan Jackson of the Weather Service.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company