Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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Lack of power puts damper on July 4th celebrations

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of thousands from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic were preparing to spend the Fourth of July like America's founders did in 1776, without the conveniences of electricity and air conditioning.
Power outages from Friday's storm altered planned celebrations in a host of ways and left powerless residents grumbling that America's birthday would hardly be a party. Cookouts were cancelled or moved to homes with power. Vacation plans were altered. Some residents without power said they weren't in a holiday mood. And even some whose power had been restored said they had run out of steam to celebrate in the way they had planned.
Friday's storm arrived with little warning and knocked out power to 3 million homes and businesses in states from West Virginia to Ohio and Illinois. Officials blamed 24 deaths on the storm and its aftermath, and power companies in some places estimated it could be the weekend before everyone's power is restored. More than 900,000 homes and businesses remained without power early Wednesday.
As a result, power repairs were taking priority over parties in many parts. At least four planned fireworks displays were cancelled in Maryland because of the outages, with officials saying they couldn't spare police and fire resources for the festivities.
In Rockville, Md., officials called off their celebration because trees and wires were blocking two of the three entrances to the college campus where fireworks were planned. In Gaithersburg, Md., Acting City Manager Tony Tomasello said his city, about 30 minutes north of Washington, cancelled its display because a power company is using its planned celebration location, a fairgrounds, as a staging area for repairs. Hundreds of bucket trucks park there when crews finish their 16-hour shifts, and transformers, gravel and poles are being stored there too.
"Everyone's disappointed. We're disappointed," Tomasello said of cancelling the celebration, adding that it would be rescheduled.
In West Virginia, meanwhile, officials urged people to resist the temptation to set off fireworks at home because the risk of fire is too high. Many brown, crunchy lawns were already potential fuel, but the trees and limbs that fell during the storm have added even more tinder.
Some people affected by the storm were too tired or frustrated to think about fireworks, parties or planned holiday travel. Dennis Andrews, 62, of Ellicott City, Md., had planned to go to Myrtle Beach, S.C. But after spending 14 hours cutting trees that fell on his property, Andrews, who runs a construction equipment rental company, said he was ready to relax by the pool instead.
Other parties were toned down, cancelled or moved. LaJuan Barnett, 44, who runs a daycare in Waldorf, Md., planned a more modest celebration with hot dogs and hamburgers after throwing out at least $350 in spoiled food and spending another $200 on groceries Tuesday.
"We're on a budget," said Barnett, who got her power back on Monday night, after nearly 72 hours.
Power outages and spoiled food also changed the plans of Sharvey Smith, 39, of Baltimore. Smith had begun preparing for an Independence Day party before the storm hit, buying chicken and spare ribs and planning a small gathering on her back porch. But that food spoiled when her power went out, so her party is off.
She planned to spend Wednesday's holiday at her parents' house 10 minutes away, which has electricity, and where she and her family have been staying. But her patience is wearing thin.
"I want to go back home," said Smith, adding that she calls the power company number three or four times a day to check on her power.
So far, the estimated time it will be back on is no earlier than Thursday.
The party Potomac, Md., resident James Gangler, a retired computer technician, planned to attend at his former boss' house was cancelled because of the outage. Although the cancellation email was sent Saturday, Gangler didn't see it until his own power returned Monday.
"I'm glad I saw it because I would have shown up there all by myself," he said.
A nearby swimming pool has reopened and that's where Gangler's wife Anna plans to celebrate the Fourth. But Gangler said he's looking forward to some cool relaxation at home.
"I'm just going to stay in and enjoy the air-conditioning and the quiet," he said.
In other iconic Fourth of July places, though, plans remained unchanged.
Fireworks on the National Mall in Washington were going forward. At George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, where power was initially off for 12 hours after the storm, plans for birthday cake and ice cream making were on. And in Colonial Williamsburg, the restored 18th century Revolutionary capital of Virginia, there were plans to celebrate with fifes and drums, musket and cannon fire, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
In Williamsburg, partying like it's 1776, isn't anything new, said spokesman Jim Bradley.
"In a sense we do that every day, no matter what the weather," Brady said.
Associated Press writers David Dishneau in Potomac, Md., Alex Dominguez in Ellicott City, Md.; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va., and Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va.

Scientists find new particle, probably the Higgs

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists at Europe's CERN research center have found a new subatomic particle that could be the Higgs boson, the basic building block of the universe.
"We have indeed discovered a particle consistent with the Higgs boson," John Womersley, head of a British public research body, told journalists and scientists in London on Wednesday.
"These results mark a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the fundamental laws that govern the universe."
Joe Incandela, spokesman for one of the two teams hunting for the Higgs particle told an audience at CERN near Geneva: "This is a preliminary result, but we think it's very strong and very solid."
CERN's director general Rolph Heuer said: "As a layman, I would say I think we have it."
Addressing the scientists assembled in the CERN auditorium, Heuer asked: "Would you agree?" They burst into applause.
Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old British physicist who proposed the existence of the Higgs boson in the 1960s, was at CERN to welcome the news. Clearly overwhelmed, his eyes brimming, he told the symposium: "It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime."
The Higgs theory explains how particles clumped together to form stars, planets and life itself.
Without the Higgs particle, the particles that make up the universe would have remained like a soup, the theory goes.
It is the last undiscovered piece of the Standard Model that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe. The model is for physicists what the theory of evolution is for biologists.
What scientists do not yet know from the latest findings is whether the particle they have discovered is the Higgs boson as described by the Standard Model. It could also be a variant of the Higgs idea or an entirely new subatomic particle that could force a rethink on the fundamental structure of matter.
The last two possibilities are, in scientific terms, the most exciting.
Packed audiences of particle physicists, journalists, students and even politicians filled conference rooms in Geneva and London to hear the announcement.
Despite the excitement, physicists cautioned that there was still much to learn.
"We still much we don't know about particles - this is only the beginning of a new journey. We have closed one chapter and opened another," Peter Knight of Britain's Institute of Physics told Reuters.
Oliver Buchmueller, a senior physicist on one of the research teams, told Reuters: "If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs.
"But we can't yet say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs."
Higgs called it a great achievement for the Large Hadron Collider, the 27-km (17-mile) long particle accelerator built in a tunnel underneath the French-Swiss border where experiments to search for the Higgs boson have taken place.
In a statement, he added: "I never expected this to happen in my lifetime and shall be asking my family to put some champagne in the fridge."
(Additional reporting by Robert Evans in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Alastair Macdonald)

Romney breaks from vacation for July Fourth parade

WOLFEBORO, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney is taking a break from vacationing at his lakeside estate to march in the local Independence Day parade — and to see and be seen by the news media as well as potential voters.
Romney and his family will parade through the center of this New England hamlet on Wednesday morning, their only official public appearance during a weeklong family break from the campaign trail.
It won't be the first time Romney has been spotted around Wolfeboro since he arrived last weekend. His whole family — now numbering 30 in all — has gathered at their lakeside estate for the annual family vacation. And even though the family patriarch is now running against President Barack Obama, they stuck to many of their normal routines: attending church, grabbing ice cream in town and boating on the lake.
Still, the vacation hasn't been all fun and games for the likely Republican presidential nominee. Romney huddled Tuesday with his top advisers, including his campaign manager and the aide overseeing his vice presidential search. His top strategist was in town shooting video for new TV ads.
Officially, the campaign says the week's focus is the family time and a welcome chance to relax before the campaign push leading up to the August GOP convention. But unofficially, the bit of down time is a chance for the contemplative Romney to consider how the campaign is going and adjust strategy as necessary in a contest that polls show is close.
Underscoring the stakes, Obama canceled his own annual summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard. He did, however, spend the weekend at Camp David and planned to return to Washington for the July Fourth holiday.
Behind the scenes in Wolfeboro, Romney is all but certain to be at work just as much as he is at play — and probably focused on the biggest decision he will make between now and when he accepts the GOP's presidential nomination in late August. His self-imposed deadline for picking a running mate "before the convention" is looming large and the search for a No. 2 is well under way.
His campaign is staying mum on whether that was a topic of conversation early Tuesday when he and his wife, Ann, spent at least 45 minutes talking with campaign manager Matt Rhoades, senior adviser Beth Myers and top strategist Stuart Stevens on the deck that overlooks the lawn behind his lakefront home. Romney's five sons — particularly his eldest son, Tagg — also serve as informal political advisers, and all have been on hand all week, virtually ensuring that the campaign and the running mate search were discussed.
And there's more to the political side of Romney's vacation than just the highly anticipated vice presidential pick.
While the candidate and his family haven't encouraged media coverage of their ice cream outings and sports event, they also haven't shied away from it.
That's meant that Americans who are largely unfamiliar with the former Massachusetts governor see glossy images of the large Romney clan playing on and around sun-splashed Lake Winnipesaukee — and the usually buttoned-up patriarch clearly at ease. He's been seen and photographed riding on a jet ski, playing volleyball, relaxing on the beach and eating an ice cream cone at Bailey's Bubble while surrounded by more than a dozen of his 18 grandchildren.
The vacation has painted a family portrait of the Romneys that's led at least one pundit to compare them to the Kennedy clan, the American political dynasty that gathered during summers in Hyannis Port, Mass. Their athletic, photogenic family helped label President John F. Kennedy's era as "Camelot." The vacation images have also given Romney, who's fought a perception that he can't connect with ordinary voters, a chance to show an authentic lighter side.
"You all have your life jackets?" Romney asked the handful of grandchildren who crowded onto his boat Monday night after the trip to the picturesque town's ice cream store. His usually coifed hair windblown and his face tanned, Romney hopped behind the wheel of the boat and piloted it away from the dock himself.
His vacation ends Sunday when he's scheduled to head to New York for fundraising events — and resume his campaign schedule fulltime.
Associated Press photographer Charles Dharapak in Wolfeboro, N.H., and Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in Minnesota contributed to this report.

Cuban communist party expels intellectual for exposing corruption. LPP Archive...

Prominent intellectual Esteban Morales published article criticising unnamed high-ranking officials
Havana, Cuba
Havana, where Esteban Morales has allegedly been expelled from the Cuban communist party over an article exposing corruption. Photograph: Javier Galeano/AP
Cuba's communist party has reportedly expelled a prominent intellectual for blowing the whistle on high-level corruption.
Esteban Morales is said to have been "separated from the ranks" of the party over a bombshell article, which accused senior officials of looting the state before it crumbled.
The Playa Municipal branch of the party has stripped Morales of his membership and the historian, a frequent commentator on state television, has disappeared from public view, the Havana Times reported.
Morales broke taboos with an article in April that criticised unnamed, greedy apparatchiks. "It has become evident that there are people in government and state positions who are preparing a financial assault for when the revolution falls," he wrote on the website of the state National Artists and Writers Union of Cuba.
He claimed in the article that corruption from within threatened to destroy the 50-year-old communist state. "Others likely have everything ready to produce the transfer of state property into private hands, like what happened in the former Soviet Union."
The article quickly vanished from the site, but was copied and circulated among intellectuals and analysts.
"To publish an attack on high-level corruption on a state-controlled website was fairly amazing," said one European diplomat.
Rumours of a corruption scandal involving Havana airport have been circulating for months. Rogelio Acevedo, the civil aviation minister, and Jorge Luis Sierra Cruz, the transport minister, have been fired. In addition to this, dozens of airport employees have been arrested, amid claims that state aircraft were used for private gain.
Dr. Darsi Ferrer arrives in US as political refugee
June 30 - Cuban dissident Darsi Ferrer traveled Friday from Miami to Tennessee, where he will live with his family after coming to the United States with a political refugee program.
Ferrer, a 42-year-old physician, arrived Thursday night in Miami and will join his family in Chattanooga, where they have been living since April.
Ferrer "leaves Cuba with a certain sadness, because he leaves behind his life and his struggle," but with the hope of beginning a new life in the United States, Janisset Rivero, director of the exile group Directorio Democratico Cubano, told Efe.
He seems in good spirits and now will need time to heal the "wounds caused by the repression and viciousness" of the Cuban regime against him and his family, Rivero said.
And, she said, though Ferrer will feel somewhat isolated in Chattanooga, far from the exile groups in Miami, that will help him learn English, one of his priorities, and integrate more quickly into American society.
Ferrer will try in some way to resume his profession, which he was forced to quit in Cuba "after being expelled from the center where he worked and the authorities refused to let him continue practicing medicine," Rivero said.
In December 2010 the dissident said that Cuban State Security made it clear that if it gave permission for his family to leave the country, he would have to travel with them to the United States, where his wife, Yusnaimy Jorge, sought needed medical treatment. FoxNews
Cholera Outbreak in Manzanillo - 2 Dead More than 50 Hospitalized
(Celia Sanchez Hospital - Manzanillo)
June 30 - Via Cafe Fuerte (My Translation): Two people died and more than 50 remain hospitalized in the town of Manzanillo, in eastern Cuba, where authorities decreed a quarantine at the Provincial Hospital "Celia Sanchez Manduley."
Police and State Security agents guard the medical center, according to testimony given by residents in the cities of Manzanillo and Bayamo. Although the government has maintained total silence and the news has not been reported in the official media, the medical situation seems rather complicated.
"Two people have died and the hospital can not cope, the aisles are full of stretchers with patients ... now more than fifty people, including children and adults who are hospitalized for the disease, " reported Misleidi Calvente Figueredo, who lives in Manzanillo.
The identity of the deceased in not known, although both are adults. Calvente said the outbreak is stronger in the communities of La Pesquera, Las Novillas y La Vuelta el Caño, who have been quarantined by the authorities. All medical personnel in Manzanillo has been mobilized.
"There are reports of a lack of medicines and there are requests that other towns nearby send what they have, the provincial authorities are maintaining silence, but it is confirmed that it is cholera," she added.
Yaquelin Jaens Garcia, who lives in the nearby city of Bayamo, said she found out about the outbreak on June 26.
"At the Celia Sanchez Hospital, guards were replaced by police and state security, to prevent others from obtaining information about what happens there," she said.
All attempts to obtain official communication with the hospital authorities were unsuccessful. However, a source connected to a government agency confirmed the versions of the existence of cholera in the area.
On Thursday afternoon, the popular program Frecuencia 12 broadcast on local TV stations in Granma was abruptly interrupted to report an outbreak of diarrheal diseases in the province, but gave no details of the affected areas.
La Carreta: The Miami Celebration Spot
June 29 - "Only in Miami" is a phrase that we often hear in the humid melting pot that is the Magic City. There are just certain customs and traditions that you would never witness past Broward county. Things that are truly unique to the Latin-infused culture that Miami has to offer.
Well, only in Miami would people fleece their kitchens of their pots and pans and wooden spoons, and congregate around a restaurant to celebrate the Miami Heat's amazing championship victory into the wee hours of night. When something big happens, such as the Florida Marlins winning the World Series, or when the universally detested Fidel Castro gave up power to his brother Raúl, La Carreta Restaurant in Westchester is the gathering spot for the local Miami community. Walk in past La Carreta's coffee window on a busy Saturday night and there's always a lively crowd talking, arguing and sharing stories! It is a microcosm of Miami culture: older people discussing politics, police officers on break, young men and women sharing an authentic Cuban meal, middle-aged bikers on Harleys, and the full spectrum of Miami characters: Cuban, Latin American, and American alike.
The restaurant itself is surely unique, but what we wondered was what draws a large community of people to celebrate at the same spot (especially since it's a chain) for these big moments?
Throughout the Heat's playoff run, the city has been on edge. Miamians wanted a championship so bad they could taste it. This was our year, and we were all confident that our team could do it.
But the one thing we could be sure of was that if and when they won, La Carretta on Bird Road would be flooded with people celebrating. The sounds of banging pots, honking horns and Spanish music blasting from cars would fill the streets and impromptu parades and conga lines would jam the sidewalks.
Last week, Miami did not disappoint! The Heat ended their glorious Finals run against OKC 4-1, and the Miami community did what it does best: jubilant unapologetic celebration. Click here to see the video
 Cuba: Dissident Voices Try Spreading the Truth Through Texts and Tweets
June 29 - Bloggers, tweeters, and techies met last week at a three-day forum – the Click Festival – intending to discuss and promote social media and technology. The setting would have been all too familiar in Tel Aviv, San Francisco, or New York, but this time, it was taking place in La Habana. In a country where Internet penetration is intentionally low, it is not surprising to hear the Cuban government sounding subversion alarms and accusing the attendees of seeking to incite political action. Despite its unsurprisingly anachronistic language, the aging Cuban political apparatus is somewhat in step yet appropriately afraid of the kind of expression that new media affords.
The focus on technology, access, and communication as a means of empowerment and building social, economic, and political capital is admirable. But the road to achieving a critical mass of information hubs, of bloggers, of connected youth is ambiguous and often derailed by intolerance and repression. It begs the question: do virtual masses stand a better chance at unity or at change?
From personal experience, I can recall standing mid-trivial-thought during a requested moment of silence at Pope Benedict’s mass in Santiago de Cuba at the end of March, when I heard a loud yell followed by the single loudest communal gasp I had ever heard.
Andres Carrion Alvarez – a dissident on the island – had overcome the barriers and rushed out yelling in Spanish, “Down with communism!” before being pummeled by secret service officers. In turn, the masses began clamoring for his arrest, either from genuine disagreement or to hide personal concurrence and be safe from arrest themselves. Continue reading
Dodgers pay $42 million to Cuban defector Yasiel Puig
June 29 - Less than two months removed from bankruptcy and the clutches of Frank McCourt, the Dodgers displayed their increased financial flexibility under the new ownership, committing $42 million to a 21-year-old Cuban defector who hasn't played organized baseball in more than a year.
The agreement with outfielder Yasiel Puig on a seven-year contract was perhaps the most significant statement made to date by Guggenheim Baseball Management, even more than the signing of Andre Ethier to a five-year, $85-million extension this month.
Puig isn't expected to play in the major leagues this season. He might not be ready to do so next season. But the Dodgers offered him the most lucrative contract ever awarded to a Cuban amateur, reintroducing themselves as players in an international market that was neglected under McCourt's ownership. Read more

4 ways Mohammed Morsi can push Egypt toward democracy

Despite inaugurating its first democratically elected president, the country is still controlled by the military. Will Morsi change that?
This weekend, Mohammed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt's first-ever democratically elected president, declaring that "the Egyptian people have established a new life, with real freedom and real democracy." However, the moment's historical import was hollowed by recent moves by the military to strengthen its own hold on power. After a military-backed court dissolved parliament in June, the army took control of the legislative process and the drafting of Egypt's new constitution. In addition, military leaders are in charge of the country's security forces and major sectors of the economy. Still, many analysts say Morsi and his former party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have enough popular appeal to chip away at the army's supremacy and make Egypt more democratic. Here, four ways Morsi can bring true democracy to Egypt:
1. Deliver on his promises of stability and economic growth
The strongest card in Morsi's hand is the support of the public, which has urgent concerns beyond the power struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. Uppermost in Egyptian minds "are jobs, improved health care, better education, and a government that can deliver services without corruption," says James Zogby at the UAE's The National. Morsi's campaign was partly based on economic promises, and the most pressing objective is to bring enough stability to the country to rejuvenate tourism, a major component of the Egyptian economy. Egyptian voters "want him to implement [these] promises today, not tomorrow," says Avi Issacharoff at Israel's Haaretz.
2. Broaden his support beyond Islamists
Morsi will have "to keep intact the broad coalition of Islamists and non-Islamists that brought him to the fore," says Omar Ashour at Project Syndicate. In addition to wooing the secular, liberal forces that unleashed the revolution against former strongman Hosni Mubarak, Morsi will have to reach out to Egypt's minority Coptic Christians, who "voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Morsi's rival," a Mubarak-era crony, over "concerns about having an Islamist head of state," says Muhammad Shukri at the BBC. Like any democratically elected head of state, Morsi must "accept the legitimate rights" of those who don't necessarily support him, says Zogby.
3. Don't overreach
"Anything that smacks of a Brotherhood plan to monopolize power will create resistance" among the public, says Trudy Rubin at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Indeed, the Brotherhood "set off alarm bells" when it broke its earlier promise not to field a presidential candidate — a move originally interpreted as a Brotherhood attempt to control parliament and the presidency, says Zogby. The backlash primarily came from the military and the courts, which dissolved parliament, but non-Islamist voters were frightened by the Brotherhood's perceived attempt at one-party control, too.
4. Make nice with America
The Egyptian military is heavily dependent on the U.S. for aid, and the "U.S. can help by pressing Egypt's generals to make good on their earlier promise to transfer power to a civilian government," says The Baltimore Sun in an editorial. If Morsi maintains Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, as he has promised to do, and makes concrete progress in recognizing "certain universal human rights," he can expect support from the Obama administration, says The Washington Post in an editorial.
Sources: The Baltimore SunBBCHaaretzThe NationalThe New York Times (2), The Philadelphia InquirerProject Syndicate, The Washington Post

Easy fix eludes power outage problems in US

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the aftermath of violent storms that knocked out power to millions from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic , sweltering residents and elected officials are demanding to know why it's taking so long to restring power lines and why they're not more resilient in the first place.
The answer, it turns out, is complicated: Above-ground lines are vulnerable to lashing winds and falling trees, but relocating them underground involves huge costs — as much as $15 million per mile of buried line — and that gets passed onto consumers.
With memories of other extended outages fresh in the minds of many of the 1.07 million customers who still lacked electricity late Tuesday, some question whether the delivery of power is more precarious than it used to be. The storms that began Friday knocked out power to 3 million and have been responsible for the deaths of 24 people in seven states and the District of Columbia, including a utility contractor who fell to his death Monday in Garrett County, Md.
"It's a system that from an infrastructure point of view is beginning to age, has been aging," said Gregory Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "We haven't expanded and modernized the bulk of the transmission and distribution network."
The powerful winds that whipped through several states late Friday, toppling trees onto power lines and knocking out transmission towers and electrical substations, have renewed debate about whether to bury lines. District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray was among officials calling for the change this week and was seeking to meet with the chief executive of Pepco, the city's dominant utility, to discuss what he called a slow and frustrating response.
"They obviously need to invest more in preparing for getting the power back on," said Maryland state Sen. James Rosapepe, who is among those advocating for moving lines underground. "Every time this happens, they say they're shocked — shocked that it rained or snowed or it was hot — which isn't an acceptable excuse given that we all know about climate change."
Though the newest communities do bury their power lines, many older ones have found that it's too expensive to replace existing networks.
To bury power lines, utilities need to take over city streets so they can cut trenches into the asphalt, lay down plastic conduits and then the power lines. Manholes must be created to connect the lines together. The overall cost is between $5 million and $15 million per mile, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, Inc., a nonprofit research and development group funded by electric utilities. Those costs get passed on to residents in the form of higher electric bills, making the idea unpalatable for many communities.
Power lines are already underground in parts of Washington, but initial estimates are that it would cost as much as $5.8 billion to bury them throughout the entire city and would cost customers an additional $107 per month, said Michael Maxwell, Pepco's vice president of asset management.
North Carolina considered burying its lines in 2003, after a winter storm knocked out power to 2 million utility customers. The North Carolina Public Staff Utilities Commission eventually concluded it was "prohibitively expensive" and time-consuming. The project would have cost $41 billion and taken 25 years to complete — and it would have raised residential electric bills by 125 percent.
An onslaught of recent extreme weather around the country, including heat waves, wildfires and flooding, has increased strain on infrastructure already struggling to meet growing consumer demand. And some scientists predict the severe weather will only increase, though it will take time to study this year's weather before any conclusions can be drawn.
Pepco has contingency plans for dealing with severe weather like tornadoes and hurricanes and runs periodic drills in which staff go through the process of responding to mass outages. In this case, though, the hurricane-force winds lashed the region with no advance notice, creating a type of quick-hit storm that caught the utility flat-footed and for which it had not practiced, Maxwell said.
"That's going to be a very big lesson for us," he said. "We need to understand how we recover from this."
A stress index created by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which monitors the country's power supply to annually assess its performance, shows that day-to-day performance seems to have improved, but there was an increase in high-stress days. The company counted six high-stress days in 2011, slightly more than the three preceding years. Weather was a contributing factor in nine of the 10 failures severe enough to generate a federally required report in 2011.
But utility insiders acknowledge that the math is little comfort when a customer's air conditioner fails during a triple-digit heat wave and the food spoils.
"The industry is getting better and better," said Aaron Strickland, who oversees distribution and emergency operations for Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co. "In my opinion, I think the expectations of customers are higher and higher because we depend so much on electricity. ... We expect to push that button and it works."
Still, he noted Friday's storms pummeled the region with no advance warning, and "you can't prepare for that."
"You don't see it coming," Strickland said. "It just happens."
Seth Blumsack, an assistant professor of energy policy and economics at Penn State, said utilities are making investments in transmission upgrades but "it doesn't look like blackouts are getting any less common."
"Some studies have suggested that they are getting more common," he said. "Some studies have suggested that they're happening at basically the same rate as they used to."
Though the country's power infrastructure is reliable, it was mostly built between the 1930s and 1970s and is starting to age, said Reed of the University of Pittsburgh.
Bruce Wollenberg, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota who specializes in power systems, said it's hard to tell if extended outages are more common than in years past. But the capacity for high-voltage transmission systems has not increased with demand, he said, in part because of the cost of moving power lines underground and the general distaste for having above-ground lines right outside homes.
"People don't want power lines — period ...They don't like the way they look, they don't like a lot of things," Wollenberg said. "It's universal across the country, and I think across the world. People don't want power lines. They don't want more power lines."
Residents' complaints about the latest outages have increased with their duration.
Kevin Fogg, a barber from the rural community of Jefferson, about 45 miles northwest of Washington, scoffed when asked if he'd be willing to pay Potomac Edison higher rates to prevent more outages like the one he's been suffering through.
"I think it's more than it should be already," Fogg said.
He said the utility company should do a better job of trimming trees and branches that threaten power lines.
"There's a huge, dead tree hanging over our line and they said, 'Well, we're not going to cut it down,'" Fogg said. "It's got to break first and knock the power line down before they'll do anything about it. So I guess they won't do any preventive maintenance — or at least not as much as they should."
Jean Cuseo, a middle-school art teacher from Jefferson, said she's not sure if she'd be willing to pay more to prevent outages, even if that were an option.
"I'm pretty environmentally friendly. If I could live off the grid I would," she said.
Kahn reported from New York. Associated Press writers Ray Henry in Atlanta and David Dishneau in Jefferson, Md., contributed to this report.