Electric utilities and nuclear power plants in the mid-Atlantic area braced for widespread power outages from Hurricane Irene which some warned could cause more power disruption than any previous storm.

“This could be the worst storm we have ever seen,” said Karen Muldoon Geus, a spokeswoman for PECO, which supplies power to 1.6 million residential and commercial power customers in five counties in and around Philadelphia where the storm is expected to hit late Saturday and into Sunday.

Geus said the biggest loss of power so far was caused by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 when 517,000 customers, or about a third of the utility’s total, lost power. The effects of Irene are likely to be more severe, Geus said.

“We think it’s going to be worse – how much worse we are not sure,” she said.

In the worst case, restoration of power to all customers could take one to two weeks, she added.

To prepare for the storm, PECO has deployed about 2,500 employees, including 800 to clear the fallen trees that are expected to be the main cause of power outages. In addition, some 800 contractors are joining the utility’s cleanup force from as far away as Florida, Michigan and Illinois.

PECO is urging customers to call its power outage line, to turn off all appliances if power is lost, and not to touch any downed wires, on the assumption that they are still live, Geus said.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett declared a state of emergency and warned of possible widespread power outages and flash flooding.

Pennsylvania officials warned the eastern part of the state will see rains of up to 10 inches, winds of up to 60 mph, causing downed trees and utility lines.

State Of Emergency

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie reinforced a state of emergency by urging all visitors and residents of the state’s barrier islands to leave.

In Delaware and the eastern shore of Maryland, Delmarva Power & Light is anticipating a “multiday event” to restore power, said spokeswoman Bridget Shelton.

Delmarva is also bringing in workers from other regions to help restore power to any of the 500,000 customers that may lose it during the storm, Shelton said.

The utility is adding staff to its call center to field inquiries and expects a “significant impact” from the storm, she said. “We are certainly prepared for the worst.”

Nuclear Plants Prepare

Holly Harrington, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said at least 10 nuclear power plants are in the region that’s likely to be hit by the hurricane, and the federal agency is sending extra inspectors to ensure that previously planned storm preparations are made.

Nuclear plants may use generators in case grid power goes down, and some may erect flood barriers, Harrington said.