Catastrophic gusts roar into Rappahannock, county comes to a standstill
Massive power outages, property damage from powerful Nor’easter
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.”
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...
A fallen tree caused considerable damage to the front porch and roof of this home in Swindler Hollow
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.