Va. finalizes preparations, diverts aid to Carolinas
While state should avoid most of storm, Northam urges precautions
As Hurricane Florence began to bear down on the Carolinas on Thursday, Virginia officials made final preparations for the storm’s potential impact in some southern parts of the state, including Hampton Roads and Southwest Virginia.
With Virginia forecast to avoid the brunt of the storm, state officials, as well as national emergency response administrators and local responders, have freed up some resources for response farther south.
“We still anticipate tropical storm-force winds, flooding, and several inches of rain in parts of Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam said at a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Chesterfield County. “We’re advising Virginians to shelter in place from this point forward. Stay where you are, and please, stay off the roads.”
In central Virginia, Richmond International Airport reported three cancellations Thursdays and six flights delayed by more than an hour as the storm began to make travel hazardous. For Friday, six flights were canceled a day in advance.
The city opened two shelters Thursday afternoon: Blackwell Elementary School, 1600 Everett St., and Linwood Holton Elementary School, 1600 W. Laburnum Ave. Pets are allowed at Linwood Holton.
The state also opened shelters at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. State officials estimated about 400 people were sheltered — far below earlier predictions of 100,000 people.
Just days earlier, the state was bracing for a direct hit and forecasts called for double-digit rainfall across most of the state. Hampton Roads and the state’s southernmost area could experience the strong winds as the storm comes ashore Friday and moves horizontally across North Carolina.
Northam warned Virginians to keep up their guard, as the storm’s path has been unpredictable thus far.
“If we determine that the resources we’ve prestaged for the storm are not needed to help Virginians, we will offer them to the Carolinas and help them recover from this historic storm,” he said.
Jeff Stern, Virginia’s coordinator of emergency management, said the state already has diverted some resources in Northern Virginia. Earlier this week, Stern said the state released an urban search and rescue team from Fairfax County to “national-duty status” for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We will continue to assess our resource needs throughout the weekend,” Stern said, adding that the expected northern turn of the storm could largely affect Southwest Virginia, which he and Northam repeatedly called “already saturated,” well into next week. “We want to make sure all our citizens get through this without any loss of life. We want to then check on our infrastructure systems: transportation, hospitals, water, sewer, power, communications — any of these could be affected. And simultaneously we will begin to assist our neighbors to the south.”
In Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom area, some business owners were cautiously optimistic Thursday. Many businesses in the low-lying area have been particularly wary of serious storms ever since remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston dumped 11 inches of rain over eight hours in 2004, causing severe flooding.
“I’m not worried that much,” said Victor Srikusalanukul, owner of Sumo San, a Japanese restaurant on East Main Street. “It seems the city is prepared.”
Srikusalanukul had opened Sumo San five months before Gaston brought 5 to 6 inches of water into his restaurant. It took a month and a half before he could reopen the doors, and it didn’t help that he didn’t receive financial assistance from FEMA, he said.
He expects Florence to
be much tamer, but he’s moved everything off the floor of the restaurant’s basement, just in case.
At nearby Bottoms Up Pizza, which sits directly across the street from the James River floodwall, there’s a line painted on its wall 6 feet and 2 inches above the ground, marking the height that Gaston’s floodwaters reached 14 years ago.
Thirty Dominion Energy Services trucks with 60 linemen from Northern Virginia passed through Petersburg to refuel and pick up supplies as they headed south on Thursday
Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said the crews were prepared for a 14-day trip that will first take them to service any outages to the nearly 124,000 Dominion customers on the Outer Banks before aiding other utility companies’ response to the storm in North Carolina. Richardson said crews from Petersburg and other local offices in the southern parts of Virginia were already prepared and staged to handle the response locally.
D.J. Uffelman is a lineman from Dominion’s Fairfax office who was traveling with the crews for what he called a “record storm.” He has worked with the power company for seven years and responded to countless storms, including a trip to Louisiana in 2012 for Hurricane Isaac.
“It’s always easier to go help other families in times of need,” Uffelman said. “It’s not easy to leave my family.”
The days will be long, Uffelman said, estimating 16-hour shifts. But he said he’ll pass the time in between by checking in with family and taking care of himself. Eating, sleeping and staying hydrated are key for the workers so they can get the job done and stay safe in hazardous conditions, he said.
“Putting that last fuse back in, you can sometimes hear people screaming in their houses, and they come out and clap as we sort of do a parade out of the neighborhood,” Uffelman said. “That’s enough to keep me going.”
Just west of Petersburg, more than 100 ambulances and medical personnel used the Army’s Fort Lee as a staging area as they awaited response orders. They assembled as part of FEMA’s National Response Framework, which is a crisis management plan that uses cooperative effort between federal, state and local agencies to pool assets that might be needed during storms. Fort Lee’s easy access to Interstates 95 and 85 made it an ideal location for staging, according to Nate Allen, a spokesman for the garrison.
“Logistically, we’re in a good place to get things into and out of the area,” Allen said. An added bonus: Fort Lee is “out of the path of the storm,” he said.
Crews — and their vehicles — traveled from as far away as New York, Indiana and Missouri.
The atmosphere as the crews began arriving Wednesday and Thursday wasn’t much different from a deployment, Allen said. In fact, they described it as “a deployment for FEMA.”
“There is little delay or prep time when they get the orders of where to go,” Allen said. “They are already deployed. It’s just another leg of the journey.”
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Staff writer Bridget Balch contributed to this report.
Waves slammed the pier in Atlantic Beach, N.C., on Thursday as Hurricane Florence approached the area.
Dominion Energy trucks were lined up Thursday in Petersburg ahead of their deployment to North Carolina. Thirty trucks and 60 linemen passed through, with the crews prepared for a 14-day trip.
Dominion Energy trucks passed through Petersburg on Thursday for supplies and fuel. Sixty linemen and 30 trucks from Northern Virginia are making a 14-day trip to help Dominion customers in the Outer Banks and to assist North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricane Florence.
A wall at Bottoms Up Pizza shows the water line from the 2004 flood caused in Shockoe Bottom by the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston.