Utility says all lights won't be back on till end of week

Hundreds of thousands of District and Maryland residents likely will spend days sweating in the dark after a quick butmassive storm downed hundreds of power lines — and confidence in one of the nation's largest electricity suppliers.

Fuming residents, business owners and politicians alike lashed out at PepcoMonday, blaming the power company for another sluggish response indicative of failures that can't be attributed to poor weather.

"We have plenty of outages that aren't explained -- that happen when the sky is blue," said Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda. "This isn't one of those, but it's still unacceptable that there isn't a human voice answering people. This isn't the time for a taped message."

Mirroring the historic snowstorm that blasted the Washington area just five months ago, Pepco outages far exceeded those from other power companies.

More than 200,000 Pepcocustomers were without power Monday evening, facing another three days without air conditioning amid brutal summer heat. Pepco originally expected power to return Tuesday but later said it would be Thursday for the "vast majority" of affected residents. About 100,000 customers had their power restored Monday.

Meanwhile, just a few thousand Northern Virginians were without power by dinner time.

Residents complained about not being able to reach Pepco phone operators, and the power provider's Web site crashed, leaving thousands of customers unable to search for updates.

Pepco officials say 185 crews were working, with more on the way -- from as far as Ohio -- to clear the wreckage and that they can't be blamed for bad luck with Mother Nature.

"When you have 70 mile-per-hour winds, there's not really anything you can do," said spokesman Bob Hainey. "The storm threw the trees and broke them in half. They were dragging the power lines down the streets."

The region's above-ground wires, abundance of trees and low-hanging branches were no match for the storm, they say.

It took Pepco 10 days to restore electricity after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Prolonged outages became somewhat routine during less severe storms in the following years, prompting Montgomery County officials to demand improved emergency plans.

The county felt the brunt of Sunday's storm, according to meteorologists.

However, that was no excuse for Edith Gambrell, an 86-year-old Silver Spring resident who had just one open window to filter air through her unbearably stuffy apartment.

"I don't know what they're doing," she said of Pepco. "I know I'm paying them like I should, so they should be doing what they're supposed to and turn my power back on."

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty added to the disgruntled chorus, saying Pepco was not providing information quickly enough and causing delays in the city's ability to remove downed trees.

Don't toss the food -- yet.   »  Keep the refrigerator and freezer closed as much as possible and remove large amounts of food at one time. »  Move meat, poultry, fish, eggs and other perishable items to a closed, ice-packed cooler. »  Before eating, check food with a food thermometer to ensure it's not more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. »  Freezer food can be refrozen if it shows ice crystals and is colder than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. »  Food is considered safe for 48 hours if the freezer is full and 24 hours, if half full.

Rockville's Joseph Lee hit rock bottom when he ventured out of his dark apartment only to find more of the same at area restaurants.

"All I want is a [expletive] burrito," he said, wincing in disbelief at the words 'No Power' adorning the entrance of a downtown eatery. "It's dark everywhere; It seems like it's always something here recently. It can't just be bad luck. The power [company] is part of it."

But Deputy Counsel Theresa Czarski, of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, said Pepco is "not out of the norm" compared with other power companies' emergency response times. "That doesn't make anybody feel any better when they're in the dark in 100-degree heat."

Staff Writers Freeman Klopott and Hayley Peterson contributed to this report.