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The Associated Press August 30, 2011, 10:46AM ET

PA: After Irene, waiting for power to come back on

Enoeo Santiago and his family admit they were woefully unprepared for Hurricane Irene and the accompanying loss of electricity. No batteries for the flashlights. No contingency planning for a power outage. Not so much as a camp stove to cook with -- instead, they've been burning some of the wood siding the storm pried off the side of their house.

They are ready for the lights to come back on.

"The storm's way past gone," Santiago, whose entire Allentown neighborhood is dark, said Monday afternoon. "We're starting to get really frustrated."

He's not alone. Though Pennsylvania power companies are making steady progress toward restoring electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers, the job is expected to take several more days. Statewide, 443,000 customers remained without power Monday afternoon, down from a peak of 706,000, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Thousands of utility workers are fanned out throughout central and eastern Pennsylvania, clearing toppled trees, resetting poles and replacing damaged wires and transformers, an immense job given the magnitude of the damage and the tens of thousands of miles of wire that crisscross the landscape.

Elaine Shecker returned Monday afternoon to her powerless home in Media, outside Philadelphia, to clean out spoiled food from the refrigerator.

"Rather than ruin the fridge for life, I came back to empty it," she said.

PECO, which serves southeastern Pennsylvania, said Irene now ranks as one of the five worst storms in its history, interrupting service to about 500,000 customers. PECO said 90 percent of its power outages will be fixed by Wednesday.

Allentown-based PPL Corp. said about 100,000 customers remained without power Monday, down from a peak of nearly 300,000. The utility was restoring thousands of customers an hour and expected to have electricity to most in three to five days.

Dave Bonenberger, who's heading up Irene storm response for PPL, said he understands that customers are frustrated.

"We empathize with our customers and can appreciate what they're going through and understand what they're looking for is an approximate time of when they're going to be restored, so they can plan their lives," he said.

Power outages, more than flooding, are turning out to be Irene's legacy in Pennsylvania. It was the second-worst storm to hit PPL's service area in 20 years, trailing only Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The company received 100,000 calls an hour, overwhelming phone and computer systems.

"They want to know when their power's coming back. We're making progress, but it's going to take some time," PPL spokesman Michael Wood said.

Some residents had enough foresight to take action before the storm.

Abby Angeline, of Media, said her husband started looking for a generator on Friday, calling several places before finding one in stock at a store about 80 miles away, near Harrisburg. He picked it up Saturday morning -- hours before they lost power that evening.

Nationally, nearly 8 million homes and businesses lost power because of the storm, with power companies reconnecting 3.6 million of those customers by Monday.

While the electrical grid underwent repairs, the threat of flooding receded Monday. The Delaware River largely remained within its banks, cresting at a far lower level than the National Weather Service had predicted.

It was a bit of good news for communities cleaning up from Irene, which contributed to at least five deaths in Pennsylvania.

Helen Hunter, who lives along the Lehigh River, near its convergence with the Delaware in Easton, was among those who evacuated, staying at a hotel Sunday night with her daughter and two sons.

Hunter, 82, had expected her home to flood like it did in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Instead, the Lehigh was swollen but only covered the road by her house in a few spots.

"It's looking good right now," she said Monday as she prepared to move her belongings back to the first floor. "It's really looking good."

Irene gave thousands of students an extra day of summer. Among the school districts postponing the start of the school year until Tuesday were Easton, Central Bucks, Coatesville, Kutztown, Nazareth and Unionville-Chadds Ford.

Eleven Pennsylvania counties are on the list for potential federal disaster assistance, and officials say more counties may be added as the state recovers from Hurricane Irene.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said Monday the list includes Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Wyoming and Wayne counties.


Associated Press writers Randy Pennell in Media, Patrick Walters in Philadelphia and Peter Jackson in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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