Hurricane Irene was not the powerhouse most expected

August 28, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night, no doubt about that. But when millions of residents awoke Sunday in the Washington area and Mid-Atlantic region, they heaved a collective sigh, and it was mostly one of relief.

Hurricane Irene turned out to be the most fickle of summer guests: uncertain of when she would arrive, vague about how long she would linger, unclear about what route she would take, and sure to leave detritus behind.

Once Irene departed and dawn broke, the evidence was stark: Hundreds of trees were down, and branches were strewn across local roads. Religious services were canceled as thousands lost power. Raw sewage spilled in some areas. But while the storm packed enough of a punch to leave nearly 20 dead along the East Coast, Irene did far less harm than predicted in a region that had been rattled by a rare earthquake and predictions of a potentially devastating hurricane.

“We really dodged a huge bullet,” said Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who said the minor amount of standing water and isolated power outages in her area made it seem more like a strong, but normal, summer storm had just passed through.

As residents and government officials across the region began to assess damage and clean up debris, many said they were pleasantly surprised that it hadn’t been worse.

“Usually my basement floods,” Carlton Sharp of Bethesda’s Hillmead neighborhood said, remembering the mess Hurricane Isabel created eight years ago. “But this time, nothing.”

Many without power Sunday took advantage of the weather, which cleared throughout the day, to do what they couldn’t a day before.

In McLean, where several neighborhoods and subdivisions were without power, patrons at Salona Village Shopping Center restaurants said they had left home to get away from silence and the dark.

“Really, I needed to get out of the house after yesterday and all the talk about doom and gloom,” said Patsy Tanner, a retired social worker. “And look at it outside. It’s a new day.”

At the Bradlee Center on King Street in Alexandria, Tom and Alex Franklin took a break from a late morning bike ride to grab a water and Gatorade while they waited for the power to return to their South Arlington home.

At Starbucks, Jack Davis busily worked on his laptop on one screen while checking the Sunday newspapers on another at Starbucks. “On the scale of inconveniences, this is pretty low,” said Davis, a car salesman. “It’s a drag about power, but the weather today certainly helps make this easier to deal with.”

Shavonne Brown, 28, of Upper Marlboro said her family is probably going to move into a hotel until the power returns.

“The Amish life isn’t for us,” said Brown, a middle school teacher who lives with her parents. “No electricity. We can’t do it.”

The outage in her area, which started about 3 p.m. Saturday and continued throughout Sunday, forced Brown to cancel a late celebration of her birthday, which was Tuesday, the day of the earthquake.

Still, some were not faring well.

Geraldine Capehart lives on the 11th floor of Iverson Towers in Temple Hills. The earthquake had damaged picture frames and photographs in her place; on Saturday night, her carpet was soaked by water that leaked through cracks in the building caused by the quake.

“There are big trash cans in the hallway trying to collect all of the water from the ceiling,” said Capehart, who is blind in her left eye and disabled because of chronic medical problems. “It is depressing. I am trying to stay positive, but it has been a hard week.”

In the Woodley Hills neighborhood in Fairfax County near Mount Vernon, residents heard two big explosions Saturday night, and then the power went out. On Sunday, they discovered several large trees down and sparks flying everywhere.

“It looked like a war zone,” said John Arundel, associate publisher of Washington Life magazine, who moved in two months ago but was decamping to a hotel in the District until power is restored.

In eastern Silver Spring — another place where the power was out Sunday — Maggy Sterner and her neighbors looked at the ruins of Sterner’s home. A large tree nearly split the house in two.

Sterner, a 56-year-old Web and technology consultant, said she “just happened not to be in bed, by accident” when the tree fell at 2 a.m. Sunday. Otherwise, she might have been seriously injured or killed.

Family members, friends and neighbors who gathered on Sterner’s front yard tried to console her.

“These trees are such an asset to our neighborhood,” said Rebecca Willis, a neighbor. “But they are also so dangerous.”

In the District, damage was limited to power outages and 40 to 50 downed trees and limbs throughout the city, said Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who visited nearly a dozen sites where damage was considered to be the most severe.

As Gray talked to residents on Chesapeake Street NW, Susan Absher and her husband, Bob Hohl, moved limbs from their yard to the curb. They would have to await a city crane to remove the 100-year-old tree that toppled onto the home they’ve lived in for eight years.

“It was 1:30 in the morning. All of a sudden, a huge crash woke us up,” said Absher, who recently had the gutters repaired on the house. “There’s a hole in the roof. My husband says it’s about a foot wide.”

At Idaho and Quebec streets NW, a tree and a utility pole uprooted by the storm blocked the entrance to a house. They had landed crisscross on an outdoor stairway, like pickup sticks. “This is the worst I’ve seen, but I can’t say that it’s the worst in the city,” said Millicent West, director of the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

Officials in Southern Maryland, which saw some of the worst effects of the storm, were assessing damage Sunday. St. Mary’s County closed its schools and issued
water-use restrictions.

Trooper Gary Thompson of the Maryland State Police’s Leonardtown Barracks said felled trees, standing water, downed power lines and debris obstructing roads are problems in the area.

“We got hit pretty good down here,” said Sgt. Brent Parrott of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department. He said residents who were evacuated had not been given permission to return as of Sunday evening. “We had issued an evacuation for anyone who lives within 100 feet of any cliff because of the anticipated wind and rain.”

To residents of Virginia Beach and Ocean City, Md., where evacuations of some areas had been ordered, cleanup will be far less complicated than expected.

“I wouldn’t say it was a nonevent,” said Navy Capt. Craig Petersen, 49, who rode out Irene in the low-lying beach community of Sandbridge, just south of Virginia Beach. “It could have gone the wrong way.”

Surfers were among the first to return to both beach cities, and tourists and shoppers soon followed. The roar of the wind that had permeated the air Saturday was replaced by the whine of battery-powered drills as shopkeepers removed sheets of plywood from windows. They discovered little, if any, damage.

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