Maryland tallies costs of thunderstorms -- Gazette.Net






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In the wake of thunderstorms that hit Prince George’s on Friday night, government officials are struggling to assess the impact of a storm that according to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency hit the area like a hurricane.

Across Maryland, Friday’s storm left more than 1 million customers without power during a period where the region has seen temperatures crack 100 degrees with heat and humidity making it feel even hotter. Around 200,000 customers in Prince George’s County were left without power following the storm, said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D).

Since the storms ceased, about 75 percent of those without power have had it restored as of Tuesday, said Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. By Monday, power had been restored to around 120,000 customers leaving about 80,000 customers without power, Baker said.

The impact of the thunderstorms in some ways mirror what Maryland has experienced after hurricanes, McDonough said. The broad impact of the storm approaches the scale of Hurricane Isabel which in 2003 left 1.3 million power customers in the dark, McDonough said.

But beyond the scale of both instances, the similarities end. With a hurricane, state officials and first responders would have days to activate emergency operation centers, stage equipment along highways and intersections and adjust staffing, McDonough said.

“We didn’t have that luxury this time,” he said. “All of us are playing catch up due to the freakish nature of this weather.”

Unlike a hurricane or other major weather event, the storms have not brought the heavy flooding or widespread property damage of other natural disasters.

Since the storms hit the area, Gov. Martin O’Malley has declared a state of emergency, an act that allows him to call up the National Guard to assist in dealing with emergencies across the area. However with little physical devastation, the move has led to procedural changes. The state has instructed health care companies to allow those seeking medication to refill their orders sooner than usual in case their existing supply has spoiled, and the state has relaxed rules governing the time drivers can be behind the wheel of work trucks in order to not impede recovery.

Prince George’s County doesn’t expect to have an estimate on the economic cost of last week’s storms until early next week, however the expense is expected to be in the millions, Baker said.

“We’re still early in this,” Baker said. “We’ll be looking for as much help from the governor’s office and from the feds.”

Judging the cost of the storm’s damage is tricky as area governments are looking at the cost of extra staffing and staging equipment to deal with the emergency, McDonough said.

Area agencies have dealt with the storm in varying ways. In Bowie, an emergency operation center has been set up at City Hall to deal with calls and questions from area residents, the bulk of whom were left in the dark after the storm.

The storm and the subsequent power loss bring challenges for area businesses as well, said David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce.

“More so than the revenue, you have refrigeration issues with the food, not being able to open and there are payroll issues, “ he said.

Those concerns are ones Harrington knows firsthand. Shortcake Bakery, the Hyattsville store he and his wife operate, was without power and a prolonged outage could have forced them to throw out food, he said. Power was restored early Sunday, saving the shop from having to dispose of anything, Harrington said.

All businesses impacted by the storm should be keeping track of any losses or impact related to the weather in the event that government aid may be made available, Harrington said.

While some businesses that have remained open such as movie theaters and eateries may have seen a boom in business, a lack of power has stung others, Baker said.

“For a lot of them, they’re going to be out a week,” he said. “For many of them, out in the county, that’s going to be devastating.”

Businesses that have been shuttered by the storm, may be able to qualify for low-interest or no-interest state or federal loans, however as of Monday, what resources might be available to businesses wasn’t clear, McDonough said.

Whether the state or local agencies will be able to qualify for federal financial assistance to defray the cost of the storms isn’t immediately clear either.

For uninsured property damage, be it to a bridge or some other public work, the state would need to pass a threshold of around $6 million to potentially qualify for federal disaster assistance, McDonough said.

While extra staffing in response to a weather emergency can qualify for federal relief, the metric for determining it is more complex, McDonough said.

As state and local governments’ response to last week’s weather shifts, from emergency service to a recovery mode, officials will start trying to tally the fiscal cost of the storm, McDonough said.

“We don’t have any dollar figures for that,” he said. ”That’s something we’ll be looking at down the road.”

Those numbers will be fluid for some time though. With almost every day this week bringing the possibility of more thunderstorms, there is a potential for more setbacks, McDonough said.

“I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods,” he said. “Any major storms coming through will set back the process for everybody.”