Major windstorms test the D.C. area's fondness for mature trees

Storms across the region downed trees and power lines, snarling traffic and leaving thousands without power.
By Brigid Schulte and Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson, who personally supervised the planting of Lombardy poplars along Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington has been known as the City of Trees. Arlington County and Alexandria proudly maintain lists of historic trees and have neighborhoods carefully built around remnants of native forests. In parts of Prince George's County, some trees are so old that longtime residents can't imagine their neighborhoods without them.

But when Thursday's severe thunderstorms, with straight-line winds as high as 80 miles an hour, burst through the heavily tree-lined areas of South Arlington, Alexandria and Oxon Hill, it was the trees that turned an already bad storm into a nightmare.

Joanna Bopp of Alexandria had been playing Chutes and Ladders with her 5-year-old daughter in the playroom, left to pick up her son from school and came home to discover a neighbor's enormous oak crashed through the roof. "I think the game is still there, under the roof," she said Friday.

The old pine in Kathryn Lehman's yard, just down the street, split a maple in half and then crashed into her master bedroom. Friends rushed in with a tarp to direct the falling rainwater into the bathtub. "It smelled like Christmas," she said.

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said he'd never in his life seen so many trees downed in one storm, with gigantic oaks and maples blocking just about every other street in the Del Ray neighborhood. Arborists in Arlington estimated that as many as 100 big, old trees fell in the Fairlington neighborhood alone.

Pepco's Andre Francis, who spent the day reassuring the thousands of customers without power that utility workers were doing everything they could to restore it, said trees complicate storms, with rains softening soil, winds pushing over trees and falling limbs taking out power lines, utility poles and transformers on the way down. And downed trees also slow the return to normal, which can frustrate those without power.

"The D.C. area has the third-densest tree canopy of any urban region in the country," he said. "It's not like a blown fuse. We can go and replace a fuse. With trees, we have to work with crews to get limbs off lines to restore power. It can definitely take more time."

Francis said he was well aware that customers often grumble that one power company restores service quicker than another after storms, but he said a key factor to consider is the path of the storm -- and trees. The devastating storm early last week that cost four people in the region their lives hit Montgomery County and Pepco's service area harder than other places. Thursday's storm was particularly hard on Northern Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power's territory. No serious injuries have been reported as a result of the storm.

"This was a very powerful storm as a result of the heat built up over the last few weeks," said National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Woodcock. "We knew before it even hit that it was going to be bad."

Woodcock described the storm as a major "downburst" but said there were no tornadoes.

Le-Ha Anderson, a spokeswoman for Dominion, said the utility tracked more than 180,000 lightning strikes on its system in an eight-hour period. "That's pretty phenomenal," she said. "That's more lightning strikes than we've ever endured in recent memory."

At the peak of the storm Thursday afternoon, 210,000 Dominion customers, including about half of all Alexandria customers, were without power, Anderson said. About one-third of all Prince George's Pepco customers were without power, Francis said. At the height of the storm, 75,000 Pepco customers were without power. Both utilities had additional crews and contractors working through the night Friday and expected to have power restored in most cases by Saturday evening.

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