HARRISBURG – Hundreds of thousands of people spent a second day without electricity Thursday as utility crews from as far away as Canada and Arkansas scrambled to restore power lost when a heavy coating of ice took down trees and limbs in the mid-Atlantic. Forecasters said a bone-chilling cold would remain in place for days.
Nearly a half-million customers were without power in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In Pennsylvania, where most of the outages were located, officials likened the scope of the damage to a hurricane. Some who might not get power back for several days sought warmth – or at least somewhere to recharge their batteries – in shopping malls, public libraries and hastily established shelters.
One café in downtown Pottstown gave about 15 free meals to people without power, encouraged them to plug in electronic devices and even let a few get a warm shower.
“It’s just kind of giving back to the community – there’s no other purpose of this,” said iCreate Cafe owner Ashraf Khalil.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said after an aerial survey of the storm’s aftermath that crews put a priority on restoring electricity to hospitals, nursing homes, communications facilities and sewer plants.
“This storm is in some respects as bad or maybe even worse than Hurricane Sandy,” he said during an appearance in the Philadelphia suburbs. He said a shipment of electrical generators from the federal government was on its way to Pennsylvania.
He said he was urging electric utilities “to move as fast as they can, but they have to do it within the parameters of safety.”
PECO, the dominant electricity provider in the Philadelphia area, had the most outages with 395,000. PECO spokeswoman Debra Yemenijian said most would have their lights back on by Friday night, but she said some could be without power until Sunday.
At the Upper Dublin Public Library in Fort Washington, reference librarian Marty Frantz was directing people to power outlets and helping them get online Thursday after spending the previous night in a dark house.
Frantz and her husband had dinner with their son – he had power – and then went home, got out the flashlights and went to bed.
“We snuggled under quilts,” Frantz said. “The temperature when we went to bed was 55. It was 50 when we got up this morning.”
About 200 people took advantage of seven shelters in three suburban Philadelphia counties, according to the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Shelters also were open in central Pennsylvania.
The Northeast’s second winter storm of the week dumped more than a foot of snow in some places Wednesday, forcing schools, businesses and government offices to close, snarling air travel and sending cars and trucks sliding on slippery roads and highways. It also left a thick coating of ice on trees and power lines.
“Many of them already had a coating of snow on them,” said Mark Durbin, a spokesman for the utility FirstEnergy. “It’s that weight that crushes our equipment. Multiply that by hundreds of locations.”
In hard-hit York County, south of Harrisburg, the downed trees and lines kept emergency officials busy. Calls to 911 Wednesday were quadruple the normal volume, said Carl Lindquist, a spokesman for the county government.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission said late Thursday afternoon that about 414,000 customers remained without power, down by several hundred thousand from Wednesday and falling over the course of the day. After PECO, FirstEnergy had about 42,000 outages in central Pennsylvania and PPL had 14,000 in eastern Pennsylvania. Some 53,000 Maryland power customers were in the dark.
Corbett said utility companies would have about 5,000 people working to reconnect customers.
Thursday saw the lower 48 states record what is likely to be their lowest average temperature of the season, just 11 degrees.
Forecasters said it would remain chilly through the weekend in the mid-Atlantic, with daytime highs around freezing and overnight lows in the teens. Light snow was expected over the weekend.
Officials pleaded with people not to use generators or gas grills indoors after 20 to 25 people in the Philadelphia area were taken to hospitals with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Several hospitals were running on backup generators. Most decided to cancel elective surgeries and out-patient testing.