Killer storm deals Port City a glancing blow

Killer storm deals Port City a glancing blow
(Susan Braun)

Hurricane Sandy spared Alexandria the worst of its wrath but left downed trees, damaged homes, thousands without power and the threat of more flooding in its wake.

Though the monstrous storm roared ashore far north of Alexandria on Monday evening, city residents began feeling its might much earlier in the day. As the hurricane rolled along the East Coast and hooked left toward the New Jersey shoreline, increasingly heavier wind and rain buffeted the Port City and region.

Experts recorded wind gusts of 63 mph at Fort Belvoir about 9:30 p.m. and 60 mph at Reagan National Airport just before 10 p.m.

But officials began announcing the first power outages in Alexandria hours before winds reached those speeds. About 200 customers scattered across the city reported losing electricity around 4 p.m. At the storm’s height, 12,000 homes and businesses were without power, said Mayor Bill Euille.

Fewer than 10,000 city customers remained without electricity by Tuesday morning, though as many as 120,000 were left in the dark across the region.

Residents awoke to dark traffic signals, blocked intersections, and downed trees and branches. At least 20 people were evacuated from a 4800 block Kenmore Ave. apartment building after officials condemned the property, which sustained wind and water damage.

The displaced residents found temporary shelter with friends or family, authorities said.

Preparing for the worst

Hurricane Sandy began making headlines days before it engulfed the Northeast Corridor — giving local, state and federal authorities as much as a week to urge East Coast residents to prepare for the killer storm or evacuate their homes.

“The city did a very good job being prepared and warning folks all day [Monday] and Sunday night and of course all [during] the weekend, warning folks to be prepared, and I think for the most part citizens heeded the call and were well prepared,” Euille said. “I think, all in all, it was … having advance notice. And not only advance planning, this is old hat for us. We’ve gone through two or three significant storms [in recent years], not only during hurricane season, but snow events.”

By Sunday afternoon, City Manager Rashad Young had placed Alexandria in a state of emergency. Officials canceled school and closed City Hall for the storm’s duration not long afterward. Public employees cleared storm drains of fallen leaves and handed out sandbags as the sky grew increasingly ominous.

Following the closure of New York City’s subway system and the federal government, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority canceled Metro service for Monday and DASH pulled buses off of Alexandria’s roads. Planes at area airports were likewise grounded as the storm approached.

But Sandy did far less damage to Alexandria than expected. By comparison, the summer’s derecho left most of the city dark, and many residents did not see power restored for several days during a relentless heat wave.
Euille credits the surprise summer storm with keeping damage from Hurricane Sandy to a minimum.

“We could have had it far worse than we did, but I think what attributed to the few fallen trees was the fact that when the derecho came through it took down trees … that were unstable,” he said.

‘We dodged a bullet’

While Alexandria missed the worst of the storm, points farther north were not as lucky. Hurricane Sandy left at least 59 dead across the East Coast, caused widespread flood damage in New York and New Jersey, and temporarily immobilized the Big Apple.

“The damage we suffered across the city is clearly extensive, and it will not be repaired overnight,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters during a Tuesday morning press conference as about 750,000 city residents awaited the return of electricity.

Alexandria officials have reported no deaths or injuries related to the storm. The wild weather did not spark any fires, though the Potomac River spilled its banks near lower King Street at high tide Tuesday night. A handful of private homes suffered damage from fallen trees and limbs, officials said.

While authorities in New York City warned it will take days and perhaps weeks to restore normalcy, Alexandria picked up without missing a beat Wednesday. City Hall and public schools reopened while Metro, DASH and the King Street trolley restored service for customers.

“We had minimal damage,” said Euille, who updated the White House and Gov. Bob McDonnell on the storm’s impact Tuesday. “We dodged a bullet.”

Though the wind and rain largely departed the region by Tuesday evening, authorities expect the Potomac to crest today, possibly causing minor flooding along the river. Officials with Dominion Virginia Power already are planning to free workers to head up the coast to harder-hit municipalities.

City leaders likewise hope to allow local emergency workers with connections to other areas follow suit and help with recovery efforts, the mayor said.

“Fortunately for us, we weathered the storm,” Euille said. “It wasn’t that devastating. Unfortunately, other places suffered far worse. Our hearts go out to them.”