Across Region, Wind Knocks Out Power and Fuels Fires

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sustained high winds wreaked havoc throughout the Washington region yesterday, fueling fires, knocking out power to thousands and leading to at least one fatality and one serious injury, officials said.

Powerful gusts, close to 60 mph in some places, sent trees and branches tumbling onto roads, disabled traffic lights and caused several road closures. Throughout the day, more than 90,000 customers were without power between the region and Baltimore. New Year's Eve fireworks displays were canceled in Alexandria, Baltimore and Annapolis because of the hazardous conditions.

In western Loudoun County, a priest trying to help during the maelstrom ventured onto a road to remove debris from traffic lanes and was killed by a falling tree. A 2-year-old boy in Montgomery County was in critical condition after a tree limb snapped, careened off a roof and struck him as he played in a yard.

"When we arrived, he was in his mother's arms," said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. "There were some toys and playthings out there. It's very likely he was outdoors playing."

Downed electrical wires forced the closure of U.S. Route 15 near Frederick and trapped a high school basketball squad on its team bus in Fairfax County. Maryland officials prohibited house trailers, empty box trailers and other vehicles from crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In McLean, a gust sent the massive "U" plummeting from the top of the high-rise USA Today building's sign.

"The U is gone," said Heidi Zimmerman, director of communications for USA Today. "Thank God it didn't hit anybody." She said that the letter landed on an outdoor fourth-floor walkway and that workers would try to restore it quickly. "We don't want to be 'SA Today."

The severe winds hit the region about 9 a.m., the result of interplay between a high pressure system in the Midwest and a low pressure system in the Washington area that pushed off the coast and intensified rapidly, said Andrew Woodcock, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

"A lot of wind, very intense. That's just a tribute to how strong these two systems were," Woodcock said. Gusts about 60 mph had dropped to the mid-30s and 40s by about 5 p.m. yesterday and were expected to be about 15 mph by 5 a.m. today, he said.

Power outages began about 9 a.m. yesterday and spread across the region. Utility companies trying to restore service wrestled with the persistent conditions through the night.

For many, the weather threw a wrench into long-held plans for ringing in the new year. First Night Alexandria spokeswoman Katrina Lucas said fireworks were too hazardous, given the wind. "There's no rain date for New Year's Eve," she said.

For others, the weather translated to tragedy.

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