More than 124,000 homes and businesses were without power this afternoon as a sleet and ice storm downed electricity lines and blew out transformers throughout the region, hitting hardest in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Baltimore Gas and Electric{vbar} reported more than 68,000 Anne Arundel customers without power, with most of its problems concentrated in and around Annapolis about 3:30 p.m. About 17,000 customers in Prince George's and 2,700 in Calvert also were affected, according to the utility's Web site.

BG&E spokeswoman Linda Foy said the precipitation that came down as sleet through much of the region fell as freezing rain in Anne Arundel -- coating trees limbs and power lines with ice and pulling both to the ground.

Crews were responding as quickly as possible, she said, but conditions in the field made progress slow.

"You have ice and snow piling onto the trees and the tree limbs which makes them heavy, and when you have wind it makes it more likely that those tree tree limbs and whole trees will come down," Foy said.

At 1 p.m., Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R) activated an emergency center at Annapolis High School for residents who were without power, the county announced in a statement.

Across the Washington area, utilities told some customers to expect delays as long as 24 hours.

In Prince George's, Pepco{vbar} reported that 22,700 homes and businesses were without power, with outages concentrated around Upper Marlboro, Clinton and Largo. A map{vbar} on the utility's Web site showed widespread transformer outages.

Pepco spokeswoman Debbi Jarvis said downed tree limbs were a main culprit. "The ice accumulation in Prince George's was greater than anywhere else," she said.

Outages in Montgomery County, the District and Northern Virginia were relatively minor. Dominion Power{vbar} had about 5,700 customers without power in Northern Virginia.

With emergency plans in operation, Prince George's officials said they were preparing to broadcast public service announcements encouraging neighbors to look out for each other.

County employees were calling to check on conditions in nursing homes and other facilities that serve the elderly, said Vernon Herron, Prince George's public safety director. "We are asking residents to reach out to relatives or others who might not have power, especially the elderly," he said. "As night falls, we are concerned about the threat from the weather."

So far, there have been no reports of weather-related fatalities and, he said, "We feel very fortunate about that."

Further south, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative{vbar} is working to restore power to more than 8,000 homes and businesses affected by the storm. Freezing rain and ice caused outages throughout Southern Maryland, particularly in Charles County and southern Prince George's, the utility's Web site said.

The outages may make dinner by candlelight a necessity tonight for many Valentine Day's diners. Despite warnings to stay indoors, many in the region pressed ahead with their business, sometimes scouring darkened stores for a last minute Valentine's Day present.

In Annapolis, a powerless Whole Foods Market stayed open in order to sell chocolates, flowers and firewood to the hardy shoppers who arrived.

Prince George's County Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and his wife, Donna, endured a morning of no electricity, but it came on long enough this morning to at least to brew their Valentine's Day pot of coffee.

"I was able to come down on Valentine's Day and have a nice cup of hot coffee," said Donna Dean. "Then we exchanged cards. . . . We'll go out to dinner tonight if we can get out. Otherwise, I'll make dinner for us."

The widespread outages left caffeine-dependent residents of hard-hit areas hunting for a functioning coffee shop, and wreaked havoc with computer-techies who planned to avoid snow-slicked roads by telecommuting from home.

Cars leading to a drive-through window at a Dunkin' Donuts in Annapolis were almost backed up into West Street, not far from downtown.

At the sprawling but darkened Annapolis Harbour Center, a Starbucks was open, but drawing its power from an emergency generator -- enough to run the register and the blender but useless for heating water.

The result?

Icy-cold frappucinos to complement the weather, but no hot coffee. Customers nevertheless crowded into the store and huddled around the gas-powered fireplace.

Anton Marx, a computer consultant who drove 20 miles to the mall with his wife Sharella, said he was reluctant to commute to his job in the District and had to shelve plans to work from home when the power went out at 6 a.m.

"Well, we're very cozy here. I think we'll stay here for a while," he said.

Miraculously, the pastry truck made it through the icy roads to deliver scones and muffins, so the huddled masses had food to eat along with their blender beverages.

Staff writers Bill Brubaker, Dan Morse, Lisa Rein, Philip Rucker and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.