Storm blackouts drag on, commute troubles ahead

Associated Press
A tree sitting atop a vehicle offers free firewood in Falls Church, Va., Monday, July, 2, 2012, as cleanup continued after Friday's  storm, Around 2 million utility customers are without electricity across a swath of states along the East Coast and as far west as Illinois as the area recovers from a round of summer storms that has also caused at least 17 deaths. (AP Photo/Karen Mahabir)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A weekend without electricity was already trying for millions in the sweltering, storm-swept mid-Atlantic region. But Monday morning brings another grim challenge when many embark on a difficult commute over roads with darkened stoplights and likely mass-transit delays.

To alleviate congestion around Baltimore and Washington, federal and state officials gave many workers the option of staying home Monday. Federal agencies will be open in Washington, but non-emergency employees have the option of taking leave or working from home. Maryland's governor also gave state workers wide leeway for staying out of the office.

As of Monday morning, around 2 million customers across a swath of states along the East Coast and as far west as Illinois remained without power. That left many to contend with stifling homes and spoiled food over the weekend as temperatures approached or exceeded 100 degrees, and utility officials said the power will likely be out for several more days. Since Friday, severe weather has been blamed for at least 17 deaths, most from trees falling on homes and cars.

There were more than 400 signal outages in Maryland on Monday, including more than 330 in hard-hit Montgomery County outside the nation's capital, according to the State Highway Administration. There were 100 signal outages in northern Virginia late Sunday afternoon, and 65 roads were closed, although most were secondary roads.

"If you have to drive or need to drive, leave yourself a lot of extra time," Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischlar said. "There's going to be delays."

All 86 Metro subway stations in the Washington area were open, but delays were possible Monday because power was being routed through the system to serve some areas where power was not being supplied by commercial utilities, spokesman Dan Stessel said. Some stations in Montgomery County were running on backup power, he said, meaning escalators may not work — bad news for commuters braving the stifling heat. Metro bus riders were expected to experience significant delays.

Drivers resorted to ingenuity to get to work. On a residential street in suburban Falls Church, Va., just outside Washington, downed trees blocked the road on either side. Enterprising neighbors used chain saws to cut a makeshift path on one side, but the other remained completely blocked by a massive oak tree.

"They kind of forgot about us out here," resident Eric Nesson said.

Still, residents took the aggravation with good humor. Posted on the oak tree was a sign saying: "Free firewood you haul." The tree lay across a smashed Ford pickup truck, with a sign reading: "For SALE. Recently lowered."

Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials say they have suspended the search for a man who disappeared early Saturday while boating during the storm off Maryland.

On Sunday night in North Carolina, a 77-year-old man was killed when strong winds collapsed a Pitt County barn where he was parking an all-terrain vehicle, authorities said. In neighboring Beaufort County, a couple was killed when a tree fell on the golf cart they were driving. Officials said trees fell onto dozens of houses, and two hangars were destroyed at an airport in Beaufort County.

The damage was mostly blamed on straight-line winds, which are strong gusts pushed ahead of fast-moving thunderstorms like a wall of wind.

Elsewhere, at least six of the dead were killed in Virginia, including a 90-year-old woman asleep in her bed when a tree slammed into her home. Two young cousins in New Jersey were killed when a tree fell on their tent while camping. Two were killed in Maryland, one in Ohio, one in Kentucky and one in Washington.

For survivors, it was a challenge to stay cool over the weekend.

From Atlanta to Baltimore, temperatures approached or exceeded triple digits. Atlanta set a record with a high of 105 degrees, while the temperature hit 99 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport just outside the nation's capital. With no air conditioning, officials urged residents to check on their elderly relatives and neighbors. It was tough to find a free pump at gas stations that did have power, and lines of cars snaked around fast-food drive-thrus.

"If we don't get power tonight, we'll have to throw everything away," Susan Fritz, a mother of three, said grimly of her refrigerator and freezer. Fritz came to a library in Bethesda, Md., so her son could do school work. She charged her phone and iPad at her local gym.

Power crews from as far away as Florida and Oklahoma were on their way to the mid-Atlantic region to help get the power back on and the air conditioners running again. Even if people have generators, the gas-run devices often don't have enough power to operate an air conditioner.

And power restoration was spotty: Several people interviewed by The Associated Press said they remained without power even though the lights were on at neighbors' homes across the street. In Maryland, Gov. O'Malley promised he would push utility companies to get electricity restored as quickly as possible.

"No one will have his boot further up Pepco's and BGE's backsides than I will," O'Malley said Sunday afternoon, referring to the two main utilities serving Maryland.

In Waldorf, Md., Charles County emergency officials handed out free 40-pound bags of ice to anyone who needed them. Among the takers was Ann Brown, 47, of Accokeek, Md., who had stayed in a hotel Saturday night because her house was without power.

She went to a cookout in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Saturday after family members decided to cook all the food in the freezer rather than let it go bad.

"Whatever they had, that's what we ate, and it was great," Brown said.

Whether she makes the commute to work Monday will depend entirely on how comfortable the office is.

"If they don't have power, I'm not going. But if they have power, yeah, I'm going in, to be in the air conditioning all day," she said.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Va.; Jessica Gresko in Waldorf, Md.; Stacy A. Anderson in Bethesda, Md.; Steve Szkotak in Lakeside, Va.; Jonathan Drew in Atlanta; and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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