More than 31,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers in Anne Arundel County endured power outages for more than 48 hours in the wake of Hurricane Floyd because they were served by power circuits with relatively few customers, company officials said.
"I don't mean to sound flip, but it takes just as long to remove a tree that has knocked down a power line that supplies one customer as one that supplies 100 customers," said Richard Chambliss, manager of electric system operations and planning for Baltimore Gas. "We have to re-energize the lines that serve the most people first."
BG&E's performance during and after the Sept. 16 storm has been questioned by public officials including County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), whose farm in Bristol was among 2,000 county residences without electricity for six days. She issued a statement saying she was "left frustrated" by the extended outages.
Last week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) ordered the Public Service Commission to investigate BG&E's "unacceptably slow" power restoration efforts.
Chambliss said Baltimore Gas officials would cooperate fully with the commission's probe and noted that the utility would have been hard-pressed to put more workers on county streets and roads.
In addition to 25 crews Baltimore Gas already had on the job in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Prince George's and Howard counties, it deployed 83 out-of-state crews to respond to power outages in Anne Arundel and areas south, he said. The utility estimates it spent about $16 million responding to the storm, which county officials said caused about $2 million in damage to Anne Arundel businesses and residences.
"Because the entire East Coast was hit by the storm, we had to go as far as St. Louis, Missouri, to get crews," Chambliss said. "This was the worst storm in 40 to 50 years. We need to factor that into the analysis."
Outages were triaged by a computerized system that was linked to the utility's power grid, he said. That system identified the number of customers affected in each circuit and prioritized repair work, he said.
For top priority repairs, made Sept. 16 and 17, crews worked to remove downed power lines, clear blocked roads and address outages that could affect public welfare, such as hospitals, fire stations and police offices.
By the end of the night of Sept. 17, crews turned to fixing feeder circuits affecting the largest number of customers. By the following Tuesday, most crews were working on smaller circuits whose breakdown affected 20 to 50 customers.
"Rural areas have a lower concentration of large circuits," he said. "So there may be customers who say they're always the last ones restored and they probably are."
Power was restored to the last powerless Anne Arundel county customers, he said, on Wednesday evening, Sept. 22.
Despite the extended outages for many customers, some county officials praised BG&E's performance.
"I think they did a great job," said county council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman (D-Glen Burnie). "I know that's hard to sell people that when they were out of power for so long, but they [Baltimore Gas] put a lot of people out there very fast."
Klosterman said he never lost power at his home in Millersville, though a 30-foot tree branch fell on his roof.
Council member Bill D. Burlison (D-Odenton), said that although he heard "pockets of complaints" from his district, "overall, Baltimore Gas was responsible and responsive."
Owens and other county officials unanimously praised the response of county agencies to the storm, which public safety officials said tested their response capabilities.
County police received a record 7,000-plus calls in 18 hours, according to spokesman Lt. Jeff Kelly. The fire department handled another 1,069 calls on the day of the storm, said chief John Scholz. "Our busiest day ever," he said.
Scholz said the fire department pumped water from about 600 basements. For police, the most difficult moment of the storm came Thursday afternoon, when the huge volume of emergency calls left the department with a backlog of 50 or 60 calls it had no officers available to respond to.
"The chief ordered practically everybody to stop what they were doing and start responding," Kelly said.
He said 50 to 60 officers, from detectives to drug prevention officers to trainers in the police academy, wound up in action, including the chief himself, who checked out a suspicious persons report.
Residents became became eligible for help from 17 federal disaster assistance programs after President Clinton on Sept. 24 declared Anne Arundel and 10 other Maryland counties disaster areas.
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency next week will open a temporary disaster recovery center in Anne Arundel where individuals can get information about low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration, housing assistance and other forms of disaster assistance, according to a spokesman.