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Sandy's power outages could be epic

5:39 PM, Oct 29, 2012   |    comments
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(USA Today) -- The brutal force and massive breadth of Hurricane Sandy may leave as many as 10 million people in the dark from West Virginia to Maine and even as far west as Chicago.

At least 36,000 people in at least seven states were out of power as of midday Monday, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Thousands of residents in New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland had already experienced power outages by then, but utility workers were rushing to restore electricity to many before expected wind gusts start slamming the region Monday afternoon.

More than 10,000 Dominion customers in Virginia and North Carolina were without power Monday afternoon. About 53,000 had lost power since Saturday but most got it back, says David Botkins, director of media relations.

"We're actively responding to outages as they occur," he says. "We have to be very careful about putting people in harm's way but so far we've been able to work through it."

The worst is yet to come and utility companies have been preparing for outages of historic magnitude. Thousands of line workers and support crews are on their way from as far away as California and Texas and many already are in staging areas prepared to respond.

The 2003 Northeast blackout spread through eight states and affected more than 50 million people but was not caused by a storm and did not involve downed power lines, broken trees and flooding. It lasted less than 24 hours for most people. Hurricane Sandy's impact is expected to linger for days.

Using a computer model, a Johns Hopkins University engineer predicts that 3 million will lose power in New Jersey alone.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that all nuclear power plants in or near Sandy's projected path were shut down and the agency dispatched additional inspectors to each facility ahead of the storm to make sure proper preparations and procedures were in place to assure safety.

Federal rules require that nuclear plants be shut down before any projected hurricane-force winds. Because reactors continue to generate potentially damaging heat well after fission has stopped, specially protected backup generators are required to ensure that cooling systems can continue to operate if there is a flood or loss of power.

"All plants (in Sandy's path) have flood protection above the predicted storm surge," the NRC said in a statement, "and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding."

Pepco, which serves Washington, D.C., and its Maryland suburbs, earlier had asked utilities in other states to send about 3,000 people to pitch in. The company increased the request to 3,600. Baltimore Gas and Electric has set up staging areas to accommodate 3,000 out-of-state workers coming from as far as New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. About 5,000 of its customers were without electricity as of mid-day Monday.

"It's changing by the quarter-hour," says Keith Voight, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the association of shareholder-owned electric companies that generate 75% of the power in the USA. "Forecasters predicted it could become the worst storm to hit the East Coast in 100 years."

Power outages are expected to be the worst, too, affecting as many as 10 million. About 7 million were in the dark when Hurricane Irene hit last year and 5 million after a so-called "derecho" storm took the Washington area by surprise in June."

Utilities have an all-hands-on-deck approach," Voight says.

Even Chicago - about 800 miles inland from the Atlantic - may feel Sandy's impact.

"We're actually preparing right now because we're expecting high winds and high waves on Lake Michigan," says John Schoen, spokesman for ComEd, which provides power to Chicago and its suburbs.

ComEd has sent 700 people to help sister utilities PECO Energy in Philadelphia and Baltimore Gas and Electric.


By Haya El Nasser, USA Today

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