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Electricity lost, the power of community keeps Rock Creek Woods residents going

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; B01

Blame the storm: On Sunday night, Pati Young was offering refuge. By Monday night, she was seeking it.

On Sunday, as a powerhouse of a storm stomped through the Washington region, knocking trees out of its way, Young opened her Rock Creek Woods home to two families that had lost power in their District neighborhoods. By 10:45 p.m., guest beds were made, preparations done. One of the families had arrived; the other was on its way.

That's when Young heard an all too familiar sound. Think muffled fireworks. "It makes that boom, and you know exactly what it is," Young said.

The transformer blew. Power was out. Refuge was lost.

On Monday, most residents of Rock Creek Woods, a neighborhood of 76 historic homes just north of Kensington in Montgomery County, were among the hundreds of thousands in the region without power -- a frustratingly familiar feeling for a community that also went dark for days during February's snowstorms.

"We added it up to be 92 hours," Young said. Ninety-two hours in which neighbors who could get around checked on those who couldn't. Ninety-two hours in which those with electricity opened guest rooms to others. Ninety-two hours in which residents learned that when the power company failed them, they could depend on each other.

Here in this neighborhood of mid-century modern houses, power outages are no longer counted in blips that make microwave clocks blink. With a power line dangling in the middle of the street, many anticipate -- although they hope to be wrong -- that theirs will be among the last neighborhoods to see the lights come back.

"All our friends are getting their power on, and I know we won't get our power on till Thursday," said resident Heather Cox.

Cox and her husband, Neal, run a graphics design business from their home and had a deadline to meet Monday morning. So at 7 a.m., they showed up at a neighbor's house -- the same one who housed them for four nights during the snowstorms. In their arms, they carried their computer equipment, frozen food they hoped to save and a 6-year-old daughter who would have been at summer camp if the outage hadn't caused it, like so many others, to close.

The Coxes planned to spend the night at home but had already devised a plan to escape the heat if their power is not on by Tuesday: They will pack the car at 5 a.m. and head to the beach, staying till the weekend.

Geri Markoff has already accepted that the food her husband Daniel bought on the day of the storm will spoil. ("It's only food," she said.) But she is not sure what they would do if their power didn't come back on soon. She is 79; he is 83.

She went out to water the lawn but gave up, seeking relief inside. She found none. It only felt hotter. "I keep figuring it's going to be over soon," Markoff said. "You can stand a day but more than that, I don't know. I told my husband, 'Today we should go to the movies and sit through three movies.' "

Maggie Toscano offered her basement to neighbors who need to cool down. Hers was one of the few houses untouched by the storm. Next door, a tree stabbed through a roof.

During the snowstorms, Toscano went door-to-door checking on neighbors. On Monday, she did the same. Because she had Internet access, she spent the day e-mailing updates about the storm.

In this neighborhood, when disasters strike, those who can, do. After firefighters secured the area around the fallen power line Sunday night, blocking the entire road, residents rallied to help those who had to leave, such as a man who had to get to chemotherapy. They strategically moved the police tape, opening one lane and putting up homemade signs warning about the downed line.

For all the inconvenience, Young said, the neighborhood network has made storms "much less scary." She planned to spend Monday night on the couch of a neighbor who didn't lose power.

Because of the snowstorms, residents are ready.

There's a cellphone chain. They worked together, sometimes splitting costs, to cut down possibly troublesome trees.

And there's an informal shelter system consisting of guest bedrooms and pullout couches. Young reserved a couch -- at the house she stayed at during the snow.

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