In Isabel's wake - BBQs and unity

Storm draws people together in the capital, but would someone please turn on the power?

The hurricane that crashed into North Carolina's Outer Banks with 100 miles-per-hour winds on Thursday didn't directly hit the nation's capital. But you wouldn't know it from the bashed-in roofs, toppled oaks, flooded basements, and candle-lit households across the D.C. area.

More than 4 million customers lost power in the mid-Atlantic region as Isabel swept past, and about 1.3 million of them were in the Washington area. Many are still waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting for the lights to come back on.

Isabel's impact went well beyond knocking down power lines, however. In nearby wealthy Fairfax County, more than 1.2 million people have been boiling their water after all four treatment plants were forced to shut down.

At least three people in the area died from fumes caused by improperly vented emergency generators. Hundreds of huge trees fell across the region.

At the Washington Monument, National Park Service crews quickly replaced many American flags tattered by the winds.

Road crews rushed portable stop signs to key intersections around the metro area, where traffic lights are still out.

For many area residents, the crisis has brought neighborhoods closer together. Mariam McCall, a natural-resources attorney for the government, lost power when a Bradford pear tree toppled across a power line at the end of her street in Arlington, Va. Soon after the tree fell, a power pole caught on fire. By 7 a.m. the next day, people were handing out Popsicles from their freezers. By the weekend, pickup barbecues moved out into front yards to share the burgers, dogs, and steaks that would otherwise rot in refrigerators.

"It's been kind of a great experience, because of what everyone in the neighborhood has done to help," she says. "Most of the houses which still had electricity have run extension cords to those who have not - even people who didn't know each other before the storm."

But it's the lack of power that most concerns people. They are "getting angrier every day, but you've just got to see the damage," says Robert Dobkin, a senior spokesman for Pepco, which lost power to more than 500,000 customers in the District of Columbia and its Maryland suburbs.

In addition to cleaning up after hurricane Isabel, Pepco has been mopping up a public-relations tempest over how long it's taking to restore power. As the days passed, nearby Dominion Virginia Power was restoring juice to its 440,000 kilowatt-less customers at a much faster pace than Pepco - nearly 90 percent for Dominion Virginia vs. about 60 percent for Pepco by late Sunday night.

"When you put the raw numbers in the paper, it looks like they're doing so much better than us, but it isn't an accurate way to look at it," says Mr. Dobkin.

Why is that? Blame the trees.

"Virtually all the damage we have had is from these 80- or 90-foot trees," he says. Last year was the worst drought in years, which weakened a lot of trees. It was followed by the wettest year in recent history. "The trees are literally floating in mud," he says.

Note: Virginia trees are also floating in mud, but they're less likely to hit a power line when they crash to the ground, says the Pepco spokesman. Most of the new growth in the D.C. area in the last 20 years has been in Virginia, and power lines in new developments are buried.

In addition, Virginia gives its power utilities greater freedom to cut holes through old-growth tree canopies than Maryland, he adds.

The region's top weather forecaster supports that version of events. "We reached our average annual precipitation rate in August, we're running 15 to 18 inches above normal," says Jim Travers, chief meteorologist in charge of the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area's weather forecast office in Sterling, Va.

"The amount of precipitation we've had also makes crowns of the trees much fuller, so they're almost like sails. It means you get a lot more tree damage with lower wind speeds." he adds.

But don't tell that to Virginia Walden-Ford, who waited four days to get Pepco power restored to her apartment in northeast Washington. What determines when the lights go back on isn't tree cover, but power and privilege, she says.

"People of affluence get on the priority list, and we all know this," she says.

Yet in the affluent town of Chevy Chase, Md., just northwest of the District, the lights aren't on in most houses, either. In fact, Pepco linemen didn't get to the tree that crashed lives wires into an $800,000 house on the edge of town until 5:30 p.m., three days after the event.

"There's a lot of frustration and surprise that it is taking Pepco so long to get power back on line," says Chevy Chase Mayor Mier Wolf.

The outages are heightening tensions, as portable generators send decibel levels soaring along darkened streets. "I had never heard a generator until I walked out this [Sunday] evening," said the mayor. "It was terrible."

The local hardware store is stocking batteries and battery-operated lanterns "by the ton." "Business has been pandemonium," says Rick Coles, a store manager at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, Md.

Chevy Chase residents have been told to expect power by Friday - or later.

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