Hundreds of Washington area disaster relief and power company workers are being sent to Florida to help people recover from Hurricane Frances, described yesterday by a Red Cross official as one of the largest natural disasters to which the organization's national headquarters has responded.
More than 200 Dominion Virginia Power workers and contractors were scheduled to leave this morning to help the more than 5 million Floridians without power, and Pepco said it planned to dispatch workers once it was sure the storm would not affect the Washington area.
Virginia Power's line workers and tree trimmers will put up new utility polls and replace fuses, among other things, said spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson. "There's a whole lot of stuff that they could be doing, and you never know what the terrain will be like," she said.
Virginia Power is part of the Southeast Electric Exchange, a group of utilities from Maryland to Florida that help one another in catastrophic events.
"With Hurricane Isabel, crews came from everywhere, and they were a tremendous asset for us," Anderson said, referring to the storm that roared through the Washington area last Sept. 18. "We have crews that just returned last week [from Florida], and now we're going to send different crews [back] down," she said.
About 15 Red Cross volunteers and full-time employees left the Washington area Friday and Saturday and are waiting in Atlanta until they can assess where the need for their help is greatest, said Courtney Prebich, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Area. The storm was expected to cross into Alabama late today or early tomorrow, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site.
The Red Cross workers will join more than a dozen colleagues who have remained in Florida since Hurricane Charley struck three weeks ago. Those workers helped set up 257 shelters that were used by about 75,400 people yesterday.
"Within those shelters, we're giving out water, food, snacks and counseling," Prebich said from an Orlando hotel. "As you can imagine, it's a stressful time. And all of this is provided free of charge."
Washington area workers also are driving some of the 200 Red Cross emergency response vehicles, delivering meals and helping to reunite families and friends.
"This could be the largest disaster that Red Cross national headquarters has ever responded to, and we're still not done with Charley," Prebich said. "They're anticipating that Charley will cost $50 million [in damage], and now they're thinking that Frances could cost at least that much. Frances is just such a huge storm."
She said the Red Cross has received $30 million to help Charley's victims.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has shipped its Virginia Beach search-and-rescue team to help with possible storm-related lifesaving operations. The team has been in Jacksonville, Fla., since Friday, poised to travel to wherever it's needed in the state.
So how do all these local workers feel about losing their three-day Labor Day weekend?
"This is what they live for," said Bob Gore, an operations supervisor for Virginia Power. "The adrenaline is unreal. More than likely the same or close to the same guys just got back [from Florida], and they're going back again. They love it. It gives them an opportunity to see things that they wouldn't see up here in Northern Virginia . . . and they may learn things that they can bring back here."
Amtrak service on all routes between New York and Florida will be canceled again today, including the Palmetto, Silver Star and Silver Meteor trains, said spokesman Marc Magliari. The Auto Train, which runs between Lorton and Sanford, Fla., will not operate today, either.