OAKLAND – As all eyes were turned to the coast after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc there, Garrett County suffered from the storm’s aftermath quietly without attention until Thursday when the governor came to town.
Now about 15,000 residents remain without power from a heavy, wet snow that tumbled still-leafy trees onto roads and power lines, and many of them have no way of finding out when the lights will come back on.
Gov. Martin O’Malley visited the county Thursday, meeting with those affected by the storm at a shelter in Oakland. Almost every mayor from the county attended, and the governor allowed each to briefly discuss the issues facing their community.
“My whole state is now Garrett County,” said O’Malley. “Right now our county with the largest number of citizens in need is Garrett County.”
What happened in Garrett County was that as Sandy brought down cold air from the Great Lakes, the precipitation turned from rain to snow, said Fred McMullen, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh. McMullen said it was the snow, which was twice as heavy as normal, and not the upper-40-mph guests that likely took down so many trees. Snow totals varied throughout the county, with some spots seeing more than 2 feet and others seeing less than 6 inches.
The mayors meeting with O’Malley said the lack of electricity is the main problem hurting their residents. O’Malley said his priority is to get those without power in Garrett County back up and running.
One issue O’Malley said the utility companies ran into was the low cloud cover that made it impossible to helicopter over the lines and assess the damage. Wednesday was the first time the power providers were able to glimpse what they were up against, he said.
What is causing many of the outages, O’Malley said, is a couple of big breaks in one of the large transmission lines. With the first break already repaired, the governor said he is hopeful the repair of the second break in the line will restore power to 5,000 to 7,000 county residents.
However, Potomac Edison spokesman Todd Meyers said that scenario is unlikely because wires going to homes from these transmission lines are also down.
Meyers said there is still no restoration time estimate for the hardest hit parts of Garrett County because the power company has struggled to reach many of the downed wires. However, he said he has not heard many complaints because residents seem to understand the situation.
But entire towns are out of power in Garrett County. For example, in Friendsville, residents gathered at the fire hall Thursday afternoon, despite only having a minimal amount of snow on the ground.
A group from Friendship Heights, a low-income apartment complex in town, said it is unclear when the power will return.
“Since (the power companies) don’t know,” said Ina Hicks, “how can we know?”
The group said power went out Monday at 10:40 p.m. Since then, residents have been popping in and out of the fire hall, where a generator powered about half the building.
At Jubilee Junction diner in Friendsville on Thursday, Chris Myers, a meter technician for Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative, and his coworkers were taking a brief break from working the lines to grab a bite to eat.
Myers, too, struggled to estimate when power will be restored. He was hopeful that all Somerset Rural customers would be back up by the weekend, but said it’s more likely the outages will run into next week.
“We were out there before the plow trucks were,” said Myers, who joked it seemed as though almost every tree had come down. On many of the back roads, he said the power lines are “pretty well destroyed.”
The story is very different in Loch Lynn Heights, where Mayor Carolyn Corley said about 30 inches of snow fell. While most Loch Lynn residents have power, Corley said many are without phones.
It’s been a struggle for the town to afford to cut roadside trees, Corley said.
The township used to get $60,000 a year from the state to pay for tree maintenance and removal, she said, but in 2008 the governor’s office only issued $5,000. In 2009 and 2010, the township was down to only $2,300 in funding, with $14,000 in 2011 and $9,000 this year.
“We don’t have the money,” said Corley, who said the township is running on a “shoestring” budget when it comes to dealing with roadside trees.
“I don’t know if it’s (O’Malley’s) fault, but I know that we were notified that the governor’s office was taking 90 percent of our highway money away.”
While Corley said a storm in 2010 was more severe for her town than this one, she hopes this is the only long-lasting outage of the barely begun winter season.
“I know we have a long way to go to the spring,” said Corley. “So let’s just hope this doesn’t happen again with another severe snowstorm.”
Capital News Service reporters Matt Fleming and Julie Baughman contributed to this report.