Killer storm a boon for some, a bust for others -- Gazette.Net


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As Maryland residents and businesses struggled to recover this week from power outages due to last weekend’s devastating thunderstorms, some companies saw a silver lining: a big boost in business.

“It’s crazy; it’s like working for Pepco,” said Kathy McDermott, office manager at Ed’s Tree Service in Beltsville. The 15-employee business was among many companies working long hours this week to remove downed trees and limbs from homes, vehicles and other places.

Many labored over the July Fourth holiday, which fell midweek this year.

“We are working today,” Kevin Carr, manager of the Gaithersburg office of Bartlett Tree Experts, said Wednesday.

But amid daytime temperatures hovering near 100 degrees for much of the week, grocers faced a particularly tough challenge, keeping merchandise on their shelves and maintaining supplies of fresh food. Many relied on backup generators over the weekend but still had to throw out milk, eggs, frozen dinners and other spoiled food.

“We definitely threw out some perishable food,” Craig Muckle, a spokesman with Safeway, said on Thursday. The grocer does not disclose damage estimates, he said.

Two of Maryland’s 66 Safeway stores remained closed on Monday, but all stores were open with regular power by Thursday, Muckle said. Safeway, of Pleasanton, Calif., has its eastern headquarters in Lanham.

All in all, damages probably were not as severe as last August during Tropical Storm Irene, Muckle said.

“We had more time to prepare last year, but [Irene] seemed to cause more damage than this storm,” he said.

More than 70 of Giant’s 173 stores in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware lost power last Friday night when the storms — part of a weather system called a derecho that moved across the nation from Illinois and killed eight people in Maryland — struck. The stores remained open by using their own generators, said Jamie Miller, spokesman for Giant Food in Landover.

Demand for key products such as ice and bottled water remained high, he said. “We’re trying to work around the clock to keep stores well-stocked,” Miller said.

SuperValu, parent of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy with headquarters in Lanham, had normal hours, said spokesman Michael Siemienas. Shoppers has an advantage over some other regional grocers because SuperValu also supplies its grocers, so there was less concern about supplier issues, he said.

Wegmans in Glenarden's Woodmore Towne Centre also lost electricity and used generator power until Saturday. The Whole Foods Market store on River Road in Bethesda was among those that shut down for the weekend and lost perishable food.

Some grocers helped out those hit hard by the storm. Harris Teeter stores in Olney, Bethesda and Columbia distributed free ice on Sunday and Monday.

‘Summertime version of Snowmaggedon’

Other retailers, such as hardware stores, also struggled to keep stocked.

It took Strosniders Hardware’s three Maryland stores a day to get restocked, with delivery trucks arriving at all hours, said Steve Butler, manager of its Potomac store.

“It’s like the summertime version of Snowmaggedon,” said Butler, referring to the region’s record-breaking snowstorms of February 2010. “We’re trying to get as much product as possible, and tensions are getting high.”

Strosniders’ partnerships with suppliers allow stores to react quickly in crises, but this storm came “so fast and so quick,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty darn good.”

Many retailers and restaurants that maintained power over the weekend experienced a boost from potential customers seeking relief from the heat. The three air-conditioned floors of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Bethesda on Saturday afternoon resembled a literary refugee camp.

People filled every seat, and many sat on the floor. Dozens camped out by electric outlets to charge phones, laptops and computer tablets.

Malls such as Westfield Montgomery in Bethesda also were packed over the weekend with shoppers and people in search of working outlets.

“It just blew me away,” said Ginanne M. Italiano, president and CEO of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. “You just saw so many people sitting on the floor up and down [the Westfield Montgomery mall].”

The Movies at Montgomery Mall was busier than usual, even though its credit card machines were down, said Jon Goldstein, co-owner.

People also sought refuge at Rock Bottom in downtown Bethesda. The restaurant and brewery has not lost electricity in 11 years, said manager Rob Cousins. Staff set up a charging station so that patrons could charge electronic devices.

Hotels bookedAt the Crowne Plaza Rockville and nearby Rockville Sleep Inn, bookings on Saturday and Sunday were up about 50 percent from what general manager Earl Raven expected. The hotels were full those nights and had to turn many people away, he said.

Bookings also were up early this week, with a big chunk of the reservations for out-of-town utility crews called in to help restore power, he said.

“They are staying on a day-by-day basis based upon how much progress they make,” Raven said.

The hotels did not lose power themselves on Friday night and have backup generators in case of an outage, he said. “We were very fortunate,” Raven said.

The situation was similar at other Montgomery County hotels, including the Doubletree Hotel Bethesda, which kept rates as low as $99 per night. “We wanted to accommodate the neighborhood,” said general manager Rodney Bernard.

Doubletree still was getting calls from people on Tuesday seeking relief from having no power at home, he said.

Hotels in the region already had plenty of weekend bookings from the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

Some hotels, including the Bethesda Court Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue, didn’t lose electricity. But the Bethesda Marriott on Pooks Hill Road lost power and didn’t regain it until Monday morning, said Carlos Correa, a front desk agent.

Half of its approximately 200 rooms were booked over the weekend, as staff worked to keep residents comfortable by moving them to rooms on lower floors.

‘Trying to prioritize’

For many service companies, it was more than challenging to deal with demands from people seeking relief from idle air conditioners, damaged roofs and other problems. Some companies said they worked on calls based on factors such as whether customers were elderly and had medical conditions.

Moon Air in Elkton experienced “quite the adventure trying to prioritize,” said owner Steve Moon. His 14 employees worked overtime through the week.

“It’s hot, and it had to happen on a holiday weekend,” Moon said. “I think we’ve been doing well with it, despite everything.”

A big concern was the potential for insurance fraud, with people blaming the storm for their systems failing, he said.

Some gas stations were left without the electricity they need to run their pumps, while others ran out of a particular type of fuel. Many stations that were open over the weekend dealt with long customer lines.

Griffith Energy, a New York fuel supplier with offices in Maryland, made fuel deliveries to various Pepco service vehicles, as they sought to bring customers back online, said Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association. Many of his members focused on fueling generators at hospitals and schools.

"It was the same as any other emergency situation," Horrigan said.

At Trummel Electric in Rockville, service calls could multiply as Pepco informs people of damages, said co-owner Rick Trummel.

“We expect to be swamped,” he said.

Roof Pro of Severn was prepared for the storm with extra employees on hand, said Chris Kline, office administrator. Many pulled evening and Saturday shifts.

“We want to get service to people as fast as we can and refer them to others if they’re out of our region,” Kline said.

Shattering experience

Fallen trees mean lots of broken windows. The damage will keep Charlotte Streidel, owner of the Glass Doctor franchise store in Rockville, and her eight employees busy for at least two weeks, she said.

"I brought in everyone I could on Saturday," Streidel said Monday. "It's good for business, but you have to temper that enthusiasm with knowing that the client doesn’t necessarily think it’s great."

Roughly 70 percent of her shop's business is residential, including automotive glass, with the rest commercial.

"It's been interesting: We generally do a lot of windshields, and then side glass calls on the weekends, from break-ins," she said. "But on Saturday, we had lots of back glass calls from fallen tree branches."

Almost all calls were from older neighborhoods with more mature — and vulnerable — trees in Kensington, Potomac, Rockville and Alexandria, Va., Streidel said.

Worst storm in memory?

Hardly, said Streidel, who's worked at the glass store for 12 years, including three as franchise owner.

"Every year, we get a storm of some sort," she said, recalling intense thunderstorms in May 2010 that felled many trees in the county.

"That storm hurt my business," Streidel said. "We had no power then. We have power now."

Calls up for insurance agents

Insurance agencies also were taking more calls than usual.

“Winds are going to blow, and people are going to have questions,” said John Scalley, principal agent for a Nationwide Insurance agency in Hanover. “We get a call about a tree falling on someone’s camper. That’s what we’re here for.”

Employee resources are moved to best accommodate clients, said David W. Kushner, provincial agent for another Nationwide agency in Mount Rainier.

The increase in call volume was gradual early this week, but he anticipated that to pick up as people get their power restored.

Major employers fared well

For some of the region’s major employers, the storm’s impact was minimal.

One of research corporation Westat’s eight buildings lost electricity Friday but was back online by early Saturday, said Bruce Romer, vice president for adminstration.

“We’re always concerned about employee welfare and are trying to be of assistance and help wherever we can,” he said. Westat has 2,000 employees at its Rockville campus.

At 600-employee social marketing and software company Vocus in Beltsville, none of the control centers experienced any problems from the storm, said spokesman Frank Strong.

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” he said.

Vocus’ parking lot was full Monday. Strong joked that the working air conditioning and gym showers might have increased the incentive for workers to arrive.

EMD Sales, an ethnic food distribution business that moved to Baltimore last year from Landover, did not lose power. The 100-employee business does not have backup generators but monitored its warehouse frequently for changes in temperature, said Elda Devarie, president and CEO.

Many of EMD’s client stores were not so lucky, losing power, she said.

State program postponed due to outages

The state’s biotech investment tax credit program was scheduled to start taking online registration from investors Monday, the first Monday in fiscal 2013. But the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development decided to postpone that a week until 9 a.m. Monday due to continued power outages and the state of emergency.

“A decision has been made to reschedule the online registration for the biotechnology investment incentive tax credits so that investors who have already applied and been accepted have an opportunity to participate,” agency Secretary Christian S. Johansson said in a statement.

The program has $8 million in credits available in fiscal 2013. Registrations will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis on Monday.

Staff Writer Robert Rand contributed to this report.,