Cat­a­strophic gusts roar into Rap­pa­han­nock, county comes to a stand­still

Mas­sive power out­ages, prop­erty dam­age from pow­er­ful Nor’easter

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By John Mc­caslin Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

No­body more qual­i­fied than let­ter car­rier Sherry Ste­wart to de­scribe the tremen­dous dev­as­ta­tion from a fe­ro­cious Nor’easter that roared through Rap­pa­han­nock County last Thurs­day night and con­tin­ued to blow un­mer­ci­fully into the week­end.

“I've just got­ten home from work and to­day I have seen more de­struc­tion than I have seen in the last 32 years of de­liv­er­ing mail,” Ste­wart posted to so­cial me­dia. “Trees down every­where, roofs off, metal roof­ing every­where, power poles snapped in half, elec­tric wires down all over the place. Trees on roofs, even an elec­tric me­ter ripped from the house, wires still at­tached lay­ing in the yard. Road signs bent in a 90-de­gree an­gle. Barns lev­eled, fences down.” It’s no won­der. Hur­ri­cane-force winds, one a gust of 78 miles per hour clocked near the Rap­pa­han­nock-Madison county line, were so en­dur­ing and so wide­spread that few prop­erty own­ers es­caped un­scathed, par­tic­u­larly

when it came to power out­ages that had some Rap­pa­han­nock Elec­tric Co-op (REC) cus­tomers still in the dark al­most one week later.

“The dam­age is truly cat­a­strophic,” said Rob­bie Beard, man­ager of REC’s western re­gion that in­cludes Rap­pa­han­nock.

To make mat­ters worse, downed or arced power lines kept Rap­pa­han­nock County’s first re­spon­ders rac­ing from one wind-fu­eled wild­fire to an­other, the largest on Fri­day scorch­ing sev­eral hun­dred acres of El­don Farms in Woodville (see ac­com­pa­ny­ing wild­fire story).

“I’ve been here 30 years and I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing be­ing this bad,” Rap­pa­han­nock County Sher­iff Con­nie Compton told this news­pa­per. “We had 144 calls for ser­vice [dur­ing the height of the storm], which in­cluded fire and res­cue. We dis­patched 56 calls for trees across roads or power lines.”

Compton could not re­call her dis­patch cen­ter ever be­ing so pressed into ser­vice. Even the in­fa­mous dere­cho storm of 2012, the sher­iff pointed out, “was quick mov­ing, but with this be­ing the whole week­end I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing be­ing this bad.”

As a re­sult, the nor­mal one or two dis­patch oper­a­tion “turned into a four or five per­son dis­patch cen­ter” in or­der to han­dle all of the emer­gency calls, Compton said.

County schools were closed through­out the or­deal, while some restau­rants and other busi­nesses told their em­ploy­ees to stay home through­out the week­end if not be­yond. Even gas sta­tions at times strug­gled to op­er­ate their pumps.

At Shenan­doah Na­tional Park on what was an oth­er­wise bright and sunny Sun­day, the lone ranger man­ning the Thorn­ton Gap En­trance Sta­tion turned away a steady stream of mo­torists who didn’t re­al­ize Sky­line Drive had been gated shut since Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

“Too many trees down,” the park ranger ex­plained to the Rap­pa­han­nock News. “I feel bad and am try­ing to give [would-be vis­i­tors] some other op­tions for hik­ing and places to visit.”

Through­out the week­end a field ad­ja­cent to Hearth­stone School be­came a heli­copter land­ing pad, fer­ry­ing Ohiobased mu­tual aid line­men — their con­voy of trucks hav­ing pulled into Rap­pa­han­nock County at 5 a.m. Satur­day — to storm-dam­aged power lines across the rugged ter­rain of Thorn­ton Gap.

“The heli­copter flies the men and equip­ment from one pole to the next,” an Akro­n­based worker in­formed the News, “and these glass in­su­la­tors we have [stored] here will re­place the ones that broke off. When one breaks it’s like a chain re­ac­tion — they all snap off.”

At 9 a.m. Sun­day morn­ing — sixty hours af­ter the storm first struck — 2740 REC cus­tomers in Rap­pa­han­nock were still with­out power. In fact, there were more elec­tri­cal out­ages in Rap­pa­han­nock on Sun­day and sub­se­quent days this week than in any of the 21 ad­di­tional coun­ties served by REC. About 35 per­cent of the county was still with­out power on Mon­day, on Tues­day the num­ber was down to 977, while 322 cus­tomers re­mained in the dark at noon Wed­nes­day when this news­pa­per went to press.

REC, which was widely praised for its re­sponse amid hor­rific con­di­tions, hoped to have all of Rap­pa­han­nock back on line by Wed­nes­day night.

“More than 100 line work­ers from other elec­tric co-ops in Vir­ginia and three other states have joined REC crews as restora­tion and re­pairs con­tinue,” said REC’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Casey Hollins.

More than 250 REC em­ploy­ees were work­ing “around the clock” to re­store power, she as­sured — “about dou­ble REC’s nor­mal force of line per­son­nel.”

“Nearly 100 mu­tual aid line­men from Ken­tucky, North Car­olina and South Car­olina have ar­rived, with more ex­pected from in-state elec­tric co-ops that ex­pe­ri­enced less dam­age than REC,” Hollins con­tin­ued. “REC’s ser­vice ter­ri­tory sus­tained some of the most sig­nif­i­cant dam­age in Vir­ginia, with nearly 100 per­cent of mem­bers in sev­eral lo­cal­i­ties los­ing power at some point dur­ing the storm.”

The elec­tric co-op said the “most sig­nif­i­cant dam­age” oc­curred in Rap­pa­han­nock and bor­der­ing coun­ties, adding it was so cat­a­strophic that REC crews and their sup­port teams were not only con­tin­u­ing “the te­dious task of re­pair­ing [but], in some cases, re­build­ing lines.”

“Camp­ing is get­ting old,” a frus­trated Castle­ton res­i­dent told this news­pa­per, as her fam­ily be­gan the new week with­out power — three-plus days in the dark, and count­ing. Hun­dreds with­out elec­tric­ity called on their more for­tu­nate friends and neigh­bors for ev­ery­thing from drink­ing wa­ter to a hot bath.

In the county seat of Washington, a few REC cus­tomers re­mained with­out power through mid­week, how­ever most of the lights in the his­toric town were back on by Satur­day evening.

All said and done, the winds top­pled hun­dreds of trees in the county, block­ing ma­jor and sec­ondary road­ways and re­sult­ing in miles of downed power lines.

“If you got here ear­lier you wouldn’t have got­ten past here,” said one res­i­dent who lives next door to B&B Ser­vice Cen­ter on U.S. 211 in Sper­ryville, where early Fri­day morn­ing a large up­rooted tree had been pushed to the side of the high­way. Just across the road, a thick pine tree brought down a cabin’s chim­ney.

Trees fell on nu­mer­ous other houses in the county as well, in­clud­ing one in Swindler Hol­low caus­ing con­sid­er­able dam­age to the front porch and roof. Other homes lost por­tions of roofs, in­clud­ing an en­tire roof in Huntly. An un­oc­cu­pied trailer house on a hill­side over­look­ing F.T. Val­ley Road south of Sper­ryville was com­pletely twisted — and ul­ti­mately flat­tened — by the high winds.

VDOT crews, as­sisted by local fire and res­cue, worked through­out the pre-dawn hours Fri­day to clear huge trees and branches from the road­ways. In many cases snow­plows were used to push the trees off of roads.

Count­less util­ity poles were snapped in two like tooth­picks, in­clud­ing one next to the Rap­pa­han­nock County Sher­iff’s of­fice. A large green high­way sign west of Sper­ryville fell vic­tim to even stronger canyon-ef­fect winds that blew through Thorn­ton Gap.

Rap­pa­han­nock County’s In­terim Emer­gency Ser­vices Co­or­di­na­tor Art Can­den­quist told the News at the start of this week: “Ev­ery area in the county was af­fected by the Nor'easter.”

“In many ar­eas of the county, lan­d­line phone ser­vice was and in some cases is still af­fected. In­ter­net and ca­ble ser­vice also were dis­rupted in many ar­eas of the county. Some re­ports have been made of mo­bile phone ser­vice dis­rup­tions.

“No re­ports of se­ri­ous struc­tural dam­ages were re­ported,” Can­den­quist con­tin­ued, “al­though in some ar­eas when fall­ing trees took down power lines, the wires were pulled from the sides of the homes. There was one re­ported in­stance in the county where a fall­ing tree and power line pulled the elec­tric me­ter and ser­vice from the side of the house. Work is be­ing done to get re­pairs made and ser­vice re­stored. This was in the Chester Gap area.”

On Fri­day, he added, all of the county's of­fices were closed due to the loss of power in the town of Washington. “Emer­gency gen­er­a­tor power was pro­vided to the sher­iff's of­fice so that op­er­a­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions were main­tained there.”

In ad­di­tion, the downed trees and downed power lines “af­fected all pri­mary and sec­ondary high­ways in the county, and in many cases local res­i­dents as­sisted VDOT crews in clear­ing trees and de­bris from the roads.”

From an eco­nomic stand­point, he said, com­mer­cial busi­nesses “through­out the county were af­fected by the loss of elec­tric ser­vice, and their clo­sure af­fected rev­enue and the con­di­tion of per­ish­able food­stuffs. In some cases, some res­i­dents went to their clos­est fire sta­tions that were on emer­gency gen­er­a­tor power to ob­tain wa­ter for drink­ing and wash­ing.”

Can­den­quist said open­ing emer­gency shel­ters in the county was not nec­es­sary.

“There were re­ports of neigh­bors and friends check­ing on the wel­fare of other neigh­bors and friends, and many peo­ple from var­i­ous churches were re­ported to be look­ing in on their con­gre­ga­tional mem­bers,” he noted. “There were no evac­u­a­tions re­ported, though in some cases res­i­dents opted to spend their week­end else­where.”

At Be­fore & Af­ter cafe in Sper­ryville, Jess Sut­ten and her cheer­ful team pro­vided as much ex­tra as­sis­tance as they could for those in need.

“We just wanted the com­mu­nity to help them­selves to wa­ter, wifi, bath­rooms if they needed it,” Sut­ten said. “Many peo­ple brought big jugs to fill up and take back home. It was a busy cou­ple days at the cafe.”

In some re­spects, while it may be hard to imag­ine, it could have been worse for Rap­pa­han­nock res­i­dents.

“We are for­tu­nate that weather con­di­tions over the week­end were not ag­gra­vated by in­clement weather and very cold tem­per­a­tures,” Can­den­quist said. “I spoke with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Ster­ling, Vir­ginia on Fri­day for an up­dated wind fore­cast. The man I spoke with said wind con­di­tions on Fri­day equaled to or were greater than the dere­cho in June of 2012, due to the Nor'easter this week­end be­ing a 48-hour event, while the di­re­cho passed through in about 30 to 45 min­utes.”

In clos­ing, Can­den­quist said: “Much com­men­da­tion is to be ex­tended to the fire and res­cue vol­un­teers in Rap­pa­han­nock County, to the Rap­pa­han­nock County Sher­iff's Of­fice staff, and to the em­ploy­ees of VDOT and Rap­pa­han­nock Elec­tric Coop for the day-and-night ser­vices they pro­vided and con­tinue to pro­vide to serve the res­i­dents and busi­nesses of Rap­pa­han­nock County.”

PHOTOS BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

In this se­quence of photos dur­ing the height of the wind­storm last Fri­day, first re­spon­ders from across Rap­pa­han­nock County and be­yond bat­tle a sev­eral hun­dred acre fast-mov­ing wild­fire on El­don Farms in Woodville. For­tu­nately there were no in­juries or...

BY KATHY MCNITT

A fallen tree caused con­sid­er­able dam­age to the front porch and roof of this home in Swindler Hol­low

BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

A line­man from Akron, Ohio ex­plains how re­place­ment in­su­la­tors will be flown by heli­copter to re­mote power poles in Thorn­ton Gap. "When one breaks it’s like a chain re­ac­tion — they all snap off,” he said.

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