By Maria Glod and Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 6, 2008
Widespread power outages kept many public schools closed yesterday and forced others to dismiss students early, taking Northern Virginia parents by surprise, on the day after violent thunderstorms and at least one small tornado blew through the region.
From Chesapeake Beach to Herndon, residents surveyed damage to houses battered by falling limbs and trees while utility crews raced to restore electricity to tens of thousands of customers with a sweltering weekend on the way.
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado with gusts up to 85 mph touched down in Chesapeake Beach, peeling siding and portions of roofs from several houses and uprooting trees. A small tornado also hit Clarke County, Va., and officials continued to check reports that the storm spawned tornadoes in Fairfax County, Falls Church and Southern Maryland.
In Anne Arundel County, authorities said a 90-year-old woman was critically injured when her home caught fire in the storm. Four men working for a Maryland State Highway Administration contractor in Calvert County were injured by flying debris, and two remained hospitalized yesterday afternoon.
Last night, more than 85,000 Washington area residents were without electricity, down from hundreds of thousands Wednesday night. Power company officials said that crews were working round-the-clock but that repairs would continue into the weekend.
With forecasts of temperatures in the upper 90s tomorrow and Sunday, utility companies faced concerns that air conditioners working overtime, coupled with outage restorations, could cause more problems, said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion Virginia Power spokeswoman. She said customers without power should turn off all appliances except for one lamp. After power is restored, she advised turning back on "only those they need, and then don't crank their air conditioners down too low."
"We don't want to overload the system," Anderson said.
Power outages also disrupted schedules for thousands of area students. Fairfax schools opened yesterday, then dismissed students early, causing confusion and consternation among some parents. Montgomery and Prince George's counties canceled class yesterday, and several other districts closed only buildings without power. Many Montgomery schools with final exams set for today postponed them until Monday.
At Chesapeake Beach in Calvert, residents who spotted the tornado described trees uprooted and swirling as if in a blender. George Klein, owner of Tyler's Tackle Shop and Crab House, said that when the shop's windows burst, the flying glass cut a customer's neck. He drove the man, who needed 20 stitches, to a hospital.
Gary Luckett, who owns Traders Seafood, Steak and Ale in Chesapeake Beach, was proudly attending his daughter's high school graduation Wednesday, so he ignored his cellphone's nonstop buzzing. After she accepted her diploma, he took a call and learned that a portion of the restaurant's roof was torn off in the storm. The family had planned to have the graduation party there.
In Chesapeake Beach and communities across the Washington region, neighbors and local governments began assessing damage, contacting insurance companies and cleaning up. Luckett brought in refrigerator trucks to hold the restaurant's food. Chain saws growled as trees were cut up.
In Montgomery, where the storm hit hard in the communities of Germantown and Gaithersburg, officials scrambled to coordinate with Pepco late yesterday to restore power to traffic lights at 70 intersections, including major thoroughfares such as Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road. About 30 mostly residential roads remained closed because of downed power lines and trees and debris.
Fairfax officials opened school as usual, confident that power would be quickly restored. When it wasn't, they began dismissing students at almost 30 schools, upsetting many parents who didn't immediately get word. In many cases, children leaving school went to empty houses.
"This was a terrible communication breakdown," said Jeff Curtis, whose 7-year-old was dismissed early from Rolling Valley Elementary School in Springfield.
In a quiet Herndon neighborhood, Lollie Kim watched her son-in-law haul branches, small and large, from behind her two-story home. An oak tree had crashed into the family room. By midday, workers had taken away most of the tree -- all that was left were the scattered branches and twigs that had piled up and were scattered around the back yard.
"I now have a skylight," she said with a chuckle, referring to the 12-by-7 foot hole in her ceiling. Kim was home when the tree toppled in the wind. "I thought something had fallen in my kitchen," she said. But then she saw that something bigger and heavier had made its way through the roof.
After the storm Wednesday, about 500,000 customers and businesses across the region were without electricity. By 10 last night, Pepco reported 30,000 customers without power in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's. Baltimore Gas and Electric reported 15,000 outages among its area customers. In Northern Virginia, about 41,500 customers were without power, Dominion Virginia Power reported.
In Rhonda Gleeson's Severn Heights neighborhood in Anne Arundel, power remained out yesterday afternoon. The streets hummed with the sounds of chain saws and gas generators.
Gleeson and her daughter, Caroline, had huddled in the basement with their two dogs when the storm passed through. When they emerged, they found a tree had flattened three cars in their driveway.
Steve Andrews's house sustained the worst damage on his block. A towering tree demolished his backyard porch, and a second had fallen on his roof, almost crushing him and his family.
But yesterday afternoon, he and his neighbors were making plans for an evening cocktail hour. "What can you do?" Andrews said. "Everyone's safe. Most of the roads are still blocked off. We're just glad we're alive."
Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler, Daniel de Vise, Chris Jenkins, Daniel LeDuc, Ann E. Marimow, William Wan and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.