Irene leaves slight damage, Washington residents without power

August 28, 2011

As Hurricane Irene moved on to flood the streets of New York City Sunday, people in the Washington region were dealing with an aftermath of power outages, flooding and trees that continued to fall in high winds.

As of 6 p.m. Sunday, almost half a million customers were without power in the region, including 150,00 in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, 100,000 in Anne Arundel and 30,000 in the District. As of noon, 82,000 were without power in Northern Virginia

The combination of winds continuing at near gale force and tree roots loosened by rain-saturated soil caused more power interruptions. Utilities said it would be several days before electricity is returned to some customers in the area, and crews from elsewhere in the country were moving in to assist.

Virginia emergency officials said the power outages in the state are the second-biggest in history, behind only the outages linked to Hurricane Isabel, which hit the region in 2003. Officials said that as of Sunday afternoon there were more than 1 million customers without power throughout Virginia.

Though many side streets, particularly in the harder-hit area to the east of Interstate 95, were blocked by fallen branches, most main roads remained open. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge reopened by mid-morning after being closed by hurricane-force gusts.

By afternoon, the now-tropical storm Irene had hit New York state and was headed for New England, and at least 14 Irene-related deaths had been reported along the East Coast. As the storm’s intensity dissipated, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the evacuation order for low-lying areas of New York City would be lifted at 3 p.m.

All major airports north of Baltimore to Boston were closed. The expectation was that they would not reopen until late Sunday or Monday, and it would be days before the nation’s air travel system returned to normal. Rail and some bus service between Washington and Boston was suspended over the weekend.

All three of the airports serving Washington were open Sunday, although many airlines had canceled flights.

“Delays and cancellations here and at airports throughout the east will continue to be an issue today,” said spokesman Jonathan Dean as flights began to resume. “This storm continues to affect major markets like New York. Any serious disruption to air traffic in New York will impact the entire national air traffic system.

Metro opened two hours later than normal at 7 a.m., as opposed to the 5 a.m. opening originally planned for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Rain and gusting wind flooded roadways and brought down wires and trees, leaving damage and obstructions that will cause problems on Sunday and into Monday morning’s commute.

The Maryland Transit Administration and the Virginia Railway Agency have both said that they plan to let commuters know about Monday morning’s MARC and VRE service by 6 p.m. Sunday.

Thanks to ample forewarning, people were prepared, from the North Carolina coast where Irene made landfall Saturday to New England, where Irene was expected to hit Sunday afternoon and Monday. New York City was likened to a ghost town Sunday morning.

The center of Irene passed just east of Ocean City at about 3 a.m. Sunday. Officials opened island access to business owners, residents and workers at 9 a.m. Sunday and streets that had been nearly deserted for 36 hours filled rapidly by midday. Visitors were allowed back at noon, as city officials rushed to take advantage of what Mayor Rick Meehan called a “dodged missile” and worked to get the tourist town’s beach-based economic turbines spinning again.

By 11 a.m, the sun was out and the wind was barely enough to ruffle the windbreakers of TV reporters doing their final stand-ups on the sidewalk outside the Hilton hotel. The beach, which was open and already covered with returnees hunting through the litter of shells and seaweed left by 15-foot waves.

The breakers, though now much smaller and officially off-limits until lifeguard crews return Monday morning, were also filled in many places with opportunistic surfers and boogie boarders.

The first retail business to open Sunday morning was also the last to close Saturday afternoon, a 7-11 at 119th Street. The owner said he stayed on the island overnight to be ready when the winds died down. Some of the first customers mixed relief at the good condition of the town with eye-rolling over the media hype and the mandatory evacuation order.

“I’ve seen worse after a rainstorm,” said a contractor to a neighbor he met in the parking lot of the store.

“A moderate rain storm,” said the neighbor. “My clocks aren’t even blinking. We never lost power.”

Neither resident wanted to comment on the record.

“I’m just glad they let us on so fast,” said one.

Officials know some will accuse them of overreacting.

“People will think that, but based on the forecast and the information we had, it was absolutely the right thing to do,” said police Chief Bernadette DiPino. “It was only by the grace of God that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”

Clean up and improvisation were the order of the day everywhere.

On North Overlook Drive in Alexandria, extension cords stretched from one side of the block, where residents had lost power, to the other side, where residents hadn’t. Residents in this Beverly Hills neighborhood, where the power lines are nestled in the tree line, have grown used to outages and often help one another out.

“We’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember,” said Dave Lloyd, 68, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1986. He lost power at about 1:30 a.m. or so and said he walked the extension cord over to his house to his neighbor’s house sometime after 7 a.m. “When that side goes out, we do the same for them.”

The borrowed electricity, he said, was enough to keep the fridge going and a few lights on. But then sometime after 9 a.m., residents said the fire marshall’s office came and told them the cords were a hazard and would have to be removed. Now, Lloyd said, it’s just a matter of waiting on Dominion Power. Residents suspect the outage resulted after a tree fell on a nearby house, bringing down the power line.

“The last hurricane, Isabel, I think it was six days we were without power,” Lloyd said. “This time, I suspect it could be a couple days. There’s not much you can do except wait.”

But because it’s a neighborhood where people worry not only about themselves, he walked, with a flashlight in hand, toward the house of a neighbor who was out of town. He wanted to make sure the basement hadn’t flood.

Meanwhile, Joan Smith, 39, emerged from her nearby house with her 6-month-old son Stephen in her arms. She knocked on a neighbor’s door across the street to ask if she could use his phone to call Dominion. Her house had also lost power and her cell phone was dead.

“We might end up going to my in-laws in Leesburg,” Smith said. She also has a 2 1/2- year-old to worry about. “My son already asked, ‘Why can’t we open the refrigerator?’”

After handing the phone back to her neighbor, she asked if she could also put a few items in his fridge. He not only said yes, he followed her inside to help her carry them.

Debris and downed trees littered roadways across Alexandria. People gathered on sidewalks surveying the damage.

Tim Bagley said he was getting his son’s baby carriage last night from the car when he saw a large tree fall on a house across the street. Knowing an elderly woman lived there, he ran over. The woman was not injured, he said, but the house was damaged. Among the damage was a window that a neighbor covered with plywood.

Brian Siegal stood in front of large fallen oak, holding a bouquet of leaves his daughter had made. He said he and the neighbors had moved their cars -- luckily -- out of the way the night before. Still, a fallen wire draped itself along the vehicles. Siegel said they weren’t sure if it was live, but they were keeping the kids away just in case.

To many Virginia Beach residents, Hurricane Irene turned out to be less than advertised and they were relieved about it.

“I wouldn’t say it was a nonevent,” said Craig Petersen, 49, a captain in the Navy who rode out the storm in the low-lying neighborhood of Sandbridge. “It could have gone the wrong way.”

By 9 a.m., Virginia Beach officials ended the mandatory evacuation order for Seabridge and Knotts Island, on the North Carolina border, but they continued to close traffic to the public on Sandbridge Road to assess damage further.

But with the sun out and foaming sea now a dappled sheet of glass beyond the breakers, a sense of normalcy returned. Near the downtown strip, surfers paddled out soon after sunup to ride long, curling breakers, and people toured the boardwalk looking for signs of damage.

Public beaches reopened, and lifeguards were to be back on duty by noon. Along streets filled with hotels and tourist traps, the howl of hurricane force winds was replaced by the whine of battery-powered drills, as shopkeepers removed sheets of plywood from their windows. Real estate agency employees visited seaside homes carrying check boards and cameras to document how their rentals fared.

Although the wooden pier lost a section, most damage in the business district seemed minor. All but one major road and some secondary roads were open, and city officials assured residents that there was no need to boil water because its supply had been unaffected by the storm.

Hardest hit was Sandbridge Beach, a sliver of land extending south from the city, and that was caused by a microburst of high wind that spun off from the tropical storm on Saturday morning. The mini-twister destroyed at least one home on Sandfiddler Road and damaged several others.

“It sounded like a hot rod coming down the street,” said Tony Lighthart, 56, a city employee who has lived on Sandpiper Road for three decades.

“You could feel the change: When that came through, everything started to shake. It was worse than the earthquake,” said his wife, Dougie Lighthart, an elementary school counselor and voluntary EMT. The Lightharts said a flying plank hit their roof and they lost some windows on the leeward side because they had not been covered with plywood. But otherwise, they came through okay.

“It looks like we actually have less damage down here than I’ve seen in 30 years of hurricanes,” Dougie Lighthart said.

Perhaps the most severely damaged house belonged to Casey and Denise Robinson. They returned early Sunday with friends to salvage belongings from what was left of their three-story beach home after the microburst ripped off the roof and seaward walls.

Looters ripped off some things too, including a vintage aerial photograph of Sunbridge and some bottles of vodka, according to the Robinsons and police.

“We were going to take our vodka, but somebody took that last night,” Casey Robinson, 54, said, picking through debris in a scene with oddly incongruent vignettes of destruction.

On its glass-strewn upper floor, rafters poked through a gaping holes of the roof above beds that were still neatly made; an outside wall of a bathroom had been sheared off, and it seemed to list, But a flowerpot filled with seashells rested neatly atop the toilet.

Bits of yellow insulation clinging to the trees and other debris showed the shoreward path the mini-twister had taken through the neighborhood before peeling off the roof of another house a block over on Sandpiper Road.

The couple, who own a computer company, said they felt fortunate that it was only their house that had been lost.

“This can all be rebuilt,” Denise Robinson said. “This is just stuff.”

Dougie Lighthart said she felt, in a superstitious way, as if she might bear some responsibility because of something she had said right before the storm about the confluence of recent natural disasters, including a recent fire in the area’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

“I said, ‘We have had a wild fire, a hurricane, and an earthquake. All we need is a tornado and a volcano to happen to complete it,’” she said. “I feel like it’s my fault.”

The storm began to roll through the Washington area by mid-morning Saturday, with rain turning heavy by afternoon.

Michele Potter, Director of Parks, Recreation and Culture for the City of Gaithersburg, tried to beat the storm and squeeze in a four-hour bike ride.

“The sky looked ominous and I kept checking my Blackberry for updates,” she said. “I encountered a little rain with 30 minutes left in the ride, decided to change my course, turned onto another road, and there was no rain. This happened three times on my way home. Seems like there were cloud bursts here and there but rain did not blanket the Germantown area all together.”

“The lights flickered around 8:45 p.m. but thank goodness, we maintained power,” she said. “My husband and I were joking that we had more severe thunderstorms than the effects of Irene.”

But after they went to bed the wind picked up.

“We lost power six times between 2:09 and 2:30 a.m., and luckily it came back on immediately,” Potter said.

Carlton Sharp of Bethesda said he lost power about four times overnight but it came back on quickly.

“I was surprised,” he said, recalling Hurricane Isabel in 2003 when power was out for almost a week.

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