Michael’s fury comes into fo­cus

5 dead, 1 miss­ing and more than 500,000 pow­er­less in Vir­ginia

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DANA HEDGPETH, JUSTIN JOUVENAL AND LYNH BUI

The worst of Hur­ri­cane Michael’s remnants were sup­posed to track south of tiny Char­lotte County in south­ern Vir­ginia, but a des­per­ate 911 call Thurs­day night told a dif­fer­ent story: A car had been washed away in a tor­ren­tial flash flood.

When sher­iff ’s deputies raced to the scene on Mount Har­mony Road af­ter 11 p.m., county ad­min­is­tra­tor Daniel Witt said they heard the screams of a 17-year-old boy cling­ing to a guardrail.

The sher­iff ’s deputies and some by­standers linked arms and waded into the rag­ing wa­ter, be­fore toss­ing the teen a rope. He was pulled to safety, but his fa­ther and grand­mother were swept away. The man’s body has been re­cov­ered, but the woman re­mains miss­ing.

Fright­en­ing scenes played out across a wide swath of south­ern and cen­tral Vir­ginia Thurs­day, as the storm caught many in the com­mon­wealth off guard with its fe­roc­ity. Of­fi­cials said the storm left one miss­ing and five dead — out of a na­tion­wide death toll of at least 15 from the storm that slammed the Florida pan­han­dle with 155 mph winds on Wed­nes­day.

The storm knocked out power to 565,000 peo­ple at the height, and it flooded or closed 1,200 roads. There were five sus­pected tor­na­does across the state.

“We were just ex­pect­ing three or four inches of rain, but it tracked north and just slammed us,” Witt said. “It caught us by sur­prise.”

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who de­clared a state of emer­gency be­fore the rain be­gan, de­fended the state’s han­dling of the storm at a Fri­day news con­fer­ence, say­ing Vir­ginia was well pre­pared.

“I think there was plenty of warn­ing,” Northam (D) said. “We pre­pare for the worst and hope for the best. We’ve seen over the his­tory of these storms that they are un­pre­dictable.”

The storm cut a path from the south­west part of the state to the Hamp­ton Roads area, lash­ing com­mu­ni­ties with four to eight inches of rain and winds that topped out at above 75 mph. The brunt came be­tween Thurs­day evening and the early hours of Fri­day morn­ing.

Swollen streams sloshed onto roads, took the lives of four peo­ple, while a firefighter re­spond­ing to an ac­ci­dent was hit and killed by a driver on a rain-slicked high­way in Hanover County. A state po­lice he­li­copter res­cued two peo- ple from the roof of a ve­hi­cle that was trapped by ris­ing flood­wa­ters on a Not­toway County bridge Fri­day.

Alan Gre­gory was work­ing at the of­fices of Sup­ply Re­sources in down­town Danville, along the North Carolina bor­der, when rain be­gan pound­ing the area and wa­ter started rush­ing through the front door. Within 30 min­utes, rain­wa­ter rose four feet into the lobby, soak­ing the floors and send­ing mud and sludge into build­ing.

“It was pretty rough around our of­fice,” said Gre­gory, a pur­chas­ing man­ager for the pack­ag­ing dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany. “There’s mud all around town. The lobby has been trashed.”

The Na­tional Guard was de­ployed to Danville, and the state opened two emer­gency shel­ters there and in Salem, which shel­tered about 80 peo­ple who were forced from their homes, state of­fi­cials said.

A group of about 40 Danville res­i­dents were trapped in their neigh­bor­hood be­cause a road had washed out.

Danville Fire Chief and Emer­gency Man­age­ment Co­or­di­na­tor David Ea­gle said the blow from Michael was “the most de­struc­tive dam­age” he has seen in his 24-year ca­reer. A rush of wa­ter quickly turned streets into lakes and over­whelmed the drainage sys­tem so much that gush­ing floods pushed man­hole cov­ers about a foot into the air.

“When we had the worst prob­lem was later yes­ter­day af­ter­noon, when the storm stalled kind of right over Danville and we got seven-plus inches of rain in about 90 min­utes,” Ea­gle said.

The 30.5-inch swell of the Dan River, which runs through the city, is the high­est on record, Ea­gle said.

Pho­tos from lo­cal news sta­tions showed the Mount Carmel Bap­tist Church on Wa­ter Street com­pletely de­stroyed. A red­brick wall com­pletely col­lapsed into the muddy earth below, ex­pos­ing the church like a doll­house.

The city had al­ready been soaked by rains from Hur­ri­cane Florence last month, and the down­pour from Michael made things worse for the com­mu­nity that has al­ready had prob­lems with drainage and flood­ing.

The city suf­fered two fa­tal­i­ties. Wil­liam Lynn Tanksley, 53, was swept from his ve­hi­cle dur­ing flash flood­ing at around 5 p.m. Thurs­day. Jen­nifer Bjar­ne­sen Mitchell, 60, drowned when her ve­hi­cle was sub­merged by flood­wa­ters around 10:20 p.m. Thurs­day.

In Char­lotte County, Witt said one rain gauge mea­sured more than nine inches of rain, while a fire­house in the town of Drake’s Branch was no longer hab­it­able be­cause of se­vere flood­ing. On Fri­day, he said phone ser­vice was out in much of the county and 90 per­cent of its res­i­dents did not have power.

Witt said a firetruck re­spond­ing to an emer­gency Thurs­day night was crushed by a fall­ing tree. No fire­fight­ers were in­jured. One man was swept into a swollen creek, where he re­mained un­til res­cuers heard his pleas and plucked him out on Fri­day morn­ing.

Two deaths were re­ported in the cen­tral part of the state.

In Pitt­syl­va­nia County, Vir­ginia State Po­lice said James E. King Jr., 45, of Dry Fork, Va., was swept away from his ve­hi­cle Thurs­day af­ter­noon when he was caught in a flash flood.

A sher­iff ’s deputy and a res­i­dent tried to res­cue him, but po­lice said the “flood­wa­ters were too deep and too swift” for them to reach him. His body was found about 10:40 p.m.

And in the same county, three fire­fight­ers also had to be res­cued from a boat that cap­sized as they were try­ing to res­cue peo­ple from ris­ing wa­ters on a bridge.

In Hanover County, a firefighter — who was later iden­ti­fied as Lt. Brad Clark — was struck and killed by a trac­tor-trailer. Two other fire­fight­ers were se­ri­ously in­jured as they tried to help with an­other crash on In­ter­state 295. The driver of the trac­tor-trailer also suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries.

Of­fi­cials with the Hanover County Fire De­part­ment said the crash hap­pened about 9 p.m. when Clark was out with a crew help­ing af­ter two ve­hi­cles crashed along south­bound I-295 out­side Me­chan­icsville. A trac­tor-trailer headed south on the in­ter­state then struck the fire crew, of­fi­cials said.

State emer­gency of­fi­cials said the five sus­pected tor­na­does are be­lieved to have hit Amelia, New Kent, Pitt­syl­va­nia, Glouces­ter and Hal­i­fax coun­ties.

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, the sun was out, the wa­ters started to re­cede in many ar­eas, and the cleanup had be­gun. A Do­min­ion En­ergy of­fi­cial said the vast ma­jor­ity of Vir­ginia res­i­dents should have their power re­stored by Mon­day.

Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment Di­rec­tor Jef­frey D. Stern said full re­cov­ery would take sev­eral days or pos­si­bly longer. He said that the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency was ex­pected to as­sess dam­age of af­fected ar­eas over the next week or so.

In the Washington area, Michael’s wrath was more muted. Res­i­dents awoke Fri­day to downed trees and wires, plus high wa­ter on some roads. Some schools sys­tems in the re­gion de­layed their open­ings.

Ja­son Sa­menow, chief me­te­o­rol­o­gist for The Washington Post’s Cap­i­tal Weather Gang, said the amount of rain that fell with Michael was in line with fore­casts, but the winds packed more of a punch than an­tic­i­pated. That may have caught some off guard.

“It was al­most as if it was gain­ing strength as it ap­proached the coast,” Sa­menow said. “Also when the ground is sat­u­rated like it is, the ef­fect is like the storm is pass­ing over the ocean and it keeps its strength.”

“We pre­pare for the worst and hope for the best. We’ve seen over the his­tory of these storms that they are un­pre­dictable.” Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D)

MARK WALLHEISER/GETTY IMAGES

Homes and busi­nesses in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., are left in dev­as­ta­tion by Hur­ri­cane Michael. At least 15 peo­ple have died na­tion­wide.

PHO­TOS BY JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Res­i­dents make their way across a road washed out by Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. ABOVE: Mex­ico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, left, speaks with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) af­ter the Cat­e­gory 4 storm made land­fall Wed­nes­day along the Florida pan­han­dle. Its winds reached 155 mph. RIGHT: The re­mains of homes, build­ings and boats dam­aged and de­stroyed in Mex­ico Beach, which has a pop­u­la­tion of 1,072.

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