BALTIMORE – George W. Bush flew to Richmond, Va., Sept. 22, surveying a region with one million households without electricity six days after Hurricane Isabel barreled through. Bush then flew back to the White House where he met with Iraq’s minister of electricity who is also struggling to get the lights back on in a country devastated by Bush’s war.

Bush recently asked Congress for $87 billion for his occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, including $5.7 billion to restore Iraq’s electricity service knocked out by U.S. missiles six months ago. But thousands here in this old city, still waiting in darkened houses, are thinking they live in “Baghdad West” and asking, “What about us?”

Baltimore Gas & Electric warns that it may take several more days to restore service to the 167,000 still without power. Line crews, reinforced by 600 repair crews from 27 states and Canada, have toiled around the clock to restore service. Three workers have been electrocuted underlining the extreme danger of working exhausting hours amid wreckage of splintered utility poles and downed wires.

While the predominant mood has been one of stolid good spirits and understanding, patience is beginning to wear thin. Questions are surfacing. Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, pointed out that neighborhoods with an “antiquated distribution system” contributed to the crisis. “If you have bare copper wires and old ceramic insulators and frail, brittle poles you’ll suffer more impact than if you’ve invested some money into improving the system,” Bullock told reporters.

A school teacher from Columbia, Md., told this reporter that affluent Howard County was hit far less hard because most of their electric transmission lines are underground. Privatization and deregulation have sharply cut investments in upgrading the electricity transmission system across the country. “We’re squeezed,” said Robert A. Dobkin, a spokesperson for Potomoc Electric Power Co. “We’re investor owned and the obligation to the investor is to generate profits.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released a “Progress Report” on its 2001 Report Card on the U.S. physical infrastructure. It gave a “D+” for the nation’s electricity transmission system. Investment barriers, including “lack of regional integrated planning, difficulty in siting transmission lines, and uncertainty regarding investment risks and returns,” were listed as factors.

Over the last two decades, transmission investment has decreased by $115 million a year, dropping from $5 billion annually in 1975 to $2 billion in 2000. Officials are now calculating the full extent of the losses from this devastating storm that killed at least 34 people, some of whom died of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable gas-powered generators. At least 326 homes were destroyed in eastern Baltimore County alone and 1,633 sustained major damage. The Sparrows Point steel mill was shut down when a 10-foot storm surge flooded the mill’s power plant.

Just around the corner from this reporter’s home, the top of a sycamore tree is standing in the middle of the street, propped up by wires from nearby utility poles. The treetop came down six nights ago, one of several downed trees that cut off electricity to houses in the neighborhood. Police stretched yellow tape around the site to keep people away but residents are still waiting for the crews to arrive to restore service. Children on their way to a nearby elementary school duck under the tape and walk past the downed wires with a shrug of resignation.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com

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