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Power outages expected to linger days after Washington area storm

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A01

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.

The storm also knocked out traffic lights, blocked bus routes with felled trees and closed businesses, government offices, summer schools and summer camps across the area. National Institutes of Health offices in Bethesda and Department of Agriculture offices in Beltsville were closed. A gigantic crane was toppled at a solid-waste transfer station in Montgomery.

As of Monday afternoon, 65 Montgomery schools were without power, and one had partial power. County officials said that all activities at schools without power Tuesday morning would be canceled.

"We think we will have the vast majority of our customers restored by Thursday," Pepco chief executive Joseph M. Rigby said at a news conference Monday in Northwest Washington.

Pepco had a maximum of about 300,000 customers without power, officials said. The numbers dropped Monday, though they were still fluctuating. As of 10 p.m., about 141,000 customers in Montgomery were still without power, with another 22,000 in Prince George's County and 13,000 in the District.

In Northern Virginia, which was hit less severely by the storm, 1,091 customers were without power Monday night, Dominion Virginia Power reported.

Rigby called the outage "a multiday event. I don't feel good saying that. But that's the truth." He said much of the storm damage was caused by the region's heavy tree canopy, which he said is the third-largest in the country, behind those in Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.

He responded to criticism about the utility's automated phone answering system, which told one stunned caller Sunday that her power would not be restored until 6 p.m. Aug. 31.

"I apologize," he said. "That shouldn't have happened." He called it a "system glitch" and said: "We took the system down, and we're fixing it."

"It will be back up" by Tuesday, he said.

The utility's Web site also had to be taken down Monday. Rigby deflected questions about that.

"Obviously, when we go through an experience like this, there's a tremendous amount of scrutiny," he said. "Our goal is to get better."

Overall, he said, "I feel like we have moved at absolutely the maximum speed that we can."

But D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said he was frustrated with the utility. "People need some specifics, and they need some fast response," he said at a news conference.

And Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, on a tour of damaged sections of Montgomery, pledged to keep "pushing Pepco as hard as we possibly can" to restore power.

At a Rockville home, the governor heard resident Martha Lufkin describe how she tackled her 22-year-old son in their living room as a soaring pine began falling toward their house.

The trunk landed within feet of her modest brick home, electric wires and the family's Hyundai Sonata, but it missed all three. A small branch was left resting gently, and apparently harmlessly, against the front of the house.

O'Malley remarked: "That's providential."

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