HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Hundreds of thousands of people spent a second chilly day without electricity today as utility crews from as far away as Canada and Arkansas scrambled to restore power lost when a heavy coating of ice took down trees and limbs in the mid-Atlantic.
State officials likened the scope of the damage to a hurricane. Some who might not get power back for several days sought warmth — or at least somewhere to recharge their batteries — in shopping malls, public libraries and hastily established shelters.
More than a half-million customers were without electricity today, the vast majority of them in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said after an aerial survey of the storm’s aftermath that crews put a priority on restoring electricity to hospitals and nursing homes, and to communications facilities and sewer plants.
“This storm is in some respects as bad or maybe even worse than Hurricane Sandy,” he said during an appearance in the Philadelphia suburbs. He said a shipment of electrical generators from the federal government was on its way to Pennsylvania.
He said he was urging electric utilities “to move as fast as they can, but they have to do it within the parameters of safety.”
Peco, the dominant electricity provider in the Philadelphia area, had the most outages with 423,000. Peco spokeswoman Debra Yemenijian most would have their lights back on by Friday night, but she said some could be without power until Sunday.
About 200 people took advantage of seven shelters in three suburban Philadelphia counties, according to the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Shelters also were open in central Pennsylvania.
The Northeast’s second winter storm of the week dumped more than a foot of snow in some places on Wednesday, forcing schools, businesses and government offices to close, snarling air travel and sending cars and trucks sliding on slippery roads and highways — an all-too-familiar litany of misery in a winter where the storms seem to be tripping over each other.
What made this one stand out was the thick coating of ice it left on trees and power lines.
“Many of them already had a coating of snow on them,” said Mark Durbin, a spokesman for the utility FirstEnergy. “It’s that weight that crushes our equipment. Multiply that by hundreds of locations.”
In hard-hit York County, south of Harrisburg, the downed trees and lines kept emergency officials busy. Calls to 911 on Wednesday were quadruple the normal volume, said Carl Lindquist, a spokesman for the county government.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission said that about 491,000 customers remained without power as of noon today, down by several hundred thousand from a day earlier. After Peco, FirstEnergy had about 49,000 outages in central Pennsylvania and PPL had 19,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania. Some 69,000 Maryland power customers were in the dark, along with about 3,000 in New Jersey and 1,000 in northern Delaware.
“The damage that we are seeing in the field with the number of trees down, not only on lines but blocking roads and more, presents a number of logistical issues,” said Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
Corbett said utility companies were still ramping up their response and expected to have about 5,000 people working to reconnect customers.
The temperature dipped to about 20 degrees overnight and forecasters said it would remain chilly through the weekend, with daytime highs around freezing and overnight lows in the teens. Light snow was forecast for the weekend.
Officials pleaded with people not to use generators or gas grills indoors after 20 to 25 people in the Philadelphia area were taken to hospitals with carbon monoxide poisoning.
While some homeowners fired up generators, others, like Dave Dixon and his wife, relied on the generosity of others to power them through. They planned to stay with friends overnight today — and possibly longer.
“If we wear out our welcome, we’ll get a hotel,” said Dixon, whose home in the Philadelphia suburbs went dark at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
In Wyncote, just north of Philadelphia, Hannah Reimer took to Facebook to ask for a kerosene heater and recommendations on where to buy the fuel.
“It worked! Someone from my church, who has power, has a kerosene heater and my husband is picking it up now,” she said Wednesday night.
Reimer and her husband then planned to pay it forward, inviting their neighbors to spend the night.
“Our neighbors don’t have heat, either,” she said. “Or a kerosene heater.”
Several hospitals were running on backup generators. Most decided to cancel elective surgeries and out-patient testing.