Next derecho: Officials promise more info, more chainsaws

Albemarle and other officials gathered on a recent Thursday afternoon to inform citizens of new strategies– including more chainsaw training and "no-tech" info spots– to prevent reaching another disaster like the one faced in the aftermath of the June 29 derecho.

Kirby Felts, Emergency Management Coordinator for Albemarle, Charlottesville, and UVA, said the county will provide designated "information spots" where citizens would be able to go to receive information in the wake of a power outage. The derecho was the third highest power outage incident in the history of Virginia, she said.

Felts outlined the need to improve volunteer management and coordination, facility readiness to house citizens, logistics management, and– most importantly– public information.

“We are going to be deepening a communications strategy to include no-tech solutions where we will have pre-identified locations where we can post information," said Felts, also suggesting "the most current social media for everyone that has smart phones and still has them charged.”

Dan Eggelston, Fire Rescue Chief, and Steve Sellers, the police chief, advised citizens to remain informed by preparing a communication plan with family and building an emergency kit.

At the July 26 press conference held in the County Office Building, Sellers said that response times were impeded by officers having to wait for the fire staff or local citizens to come remove the trees that had fallen and blocked the road.

“In the future, we’ll consider arranging to have our officers trained to use chainsaws and deploy them in the field,” he said.

When questioned about what sort of fiscal damage Albemarle incurred from the storm, no figures were given, but Felts did say the county has already submitted a request for reimbursement from the federal government. (The state is seeking a $27.5 million reimbursement.)

“Getting a federal declaration is the more rare event," said Felts. "It is always on the locality, and then hopefully we can plead the state.”

Felts highlighted the coordination and teamwork that is being seen between different departments of the county to help rectify damage from the storm. She urges families to have their homes prepared, thinking about what individual needs they have which need to be fulfilled, which include evaluating your space and your safety in that space.

“Building a kit is one of the things you hear from emergency managers over and over and over,” Felts said, as she explained the items in her own personal kit that she brought from her home to the press conference. These included a battery-powered weather radio, pet food, and an “old-school” landline phone which works without power.

Felts also urged individuals to contact their power companies letting them know if his or her power is out, so the company can pinpoint the problem more precisely. She said that Dominion Virginia Power is working to improve its own infrastructure.

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Dominion VA Power also needs do be more organized and informative to customers. Understand the damage that was done but if you inform people how and when they will start working in your area to restore power, it would prevent the resentment many have with the company.

Are they going after the retailers who price gouged ice and other essentials? Yes, there were retailers doing this - especially at smaller stores out in the county. Cab drivers are not allowed to do that during snow storms - retailers shouldn't do this either.

I wish we could get matching grants to put more lines underground.

"she explained the items in her own personal kit that she brought from her home to the press conference. These included a battery-powered weather radio, pet food, and an “old-school” landline phone which works without power. "

Okay I get the radio, and phone , but pet food ?

Pet food in case you have to evacuate. You don't leave your pets at home during an emergency!

More proactive maintenance of utility rights of way would be a huge help. If you drive around and actually look at the vegetation hanging over the lines, it's easy to see why every weather event with wind or ice creates such a mess.
The micro-bursts of June 2010 and August 2011 left some people in the city with no power for as long as a week, while the winter storm of Feb. 2010 produced similar results for county residents. The big deal for rural dwellers is the lack of water during outages which city residents don't have to deal with along with select higher density county neighborhoods. Every time this type of thing happens thousand of rural residents have to abandon their houses unless they have back-up power systems. Seems very 3rd. world doesn't it?
The likelyhood of any sort of coordinated effort to to better maintain rights of way seems remote so we'll keep having the same experience from every severe storm, maybe even worse if some pessimistic predictions about future economic contraction prove true......

Oops, this story went online this evening with my byline, but now that's been fixed to show that it was actually written by summer intern Valerie Clemens.--hawes spencer

C'ville Native; Harris Teeter in Crozet GAVE a truck load of ice away. They are not and we should say thank you by shopping there.

If they really want to address the prpblem then they need to stop planting trees UNDERNEATH POWERLINES. They spend millions trimming trees but homeowners come out screaming if they want to do it in front of their house.

If you want to stop the gouging then perhaps the Hook could do a story every storm and point out the price gougers AND those who lowered prices or brought in extra products without raising prices. That would have a huge affect for the next storm. No store manager wants to be in the paer trying to explain why they gouged people in a crisis.

Let's clear up at least one myth at the outset, offered by Kirby Felts, of all people, who should know better. An "old school" phone needs electricity as much as a new one does. But the old phone uses electric current from the phone system itself. The ringing current and voices are not carried by magic. But none of this matters if the phone system itself has no power, and the backup batteries go stale, or the lines themselves are down. A better bet is a cell phone, and preferably one with a freshly charged battery at hand. Unless, of course, the cell towers are without power - which is also exactly what happened.

And I'm not too sure about a "weather radio." It may warn of bad weather ahead - I don't know what it would contribute to a recovery effort.

Administrators should be aware that many residents don't know the location of "cooling centers" or other places of last resort for citizens. Now and then, on local radio, I heard announcements about cooling centers at certain schools whose names were unfamiliar to me, and whose locations were NOT announced. Setting aside the immediate traumatic medical impact of the storm, lack of power, and ensuing heat, the big problems were securing ice, gasoline, and fresh water. Thus it was that after a day or two, many sought hotel accommodations where they could be found. As has been correctly noted, Harris-Teeter gave away the ice when things got really ugly. Kudos to them.

One of the most stunning examples of an incalculably stupid undertaking in the aftermath was the paving operations along Rt. 810, north of Crozet. There, long lines of equipment and trucks blocked one side of the road, forcing convoys of traffic to pass by it in only one direction. God forbid that emergency traffic would need to use the road, especially when traffic was coming toward a responding unit needing to move quickly in the opposite direction. This project should have been postponed during the emergency. Why it was not is a complete mystery to me.

The restoration efforts of the power company were Herculean, to say the least, and I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for the workers who labored so long to effect repairs. On the other hand, there may be some more endemic repair required within the upper management when it comes to preventative maintenance.

I don't know what useful contingency plans may emerge from the councils of governments and their agencies with respect to the NEXT disaster, but I can tell readers to take no comfort from an old fashioned telephone. And the fact that having one is suggested by the Emergency Management Coordinator strongly suggest that the wrong person holds that post; thus, a top-down approach may be very much in order.

BBJ - a relative lives out there and reported that one of the local gas stations there was price gouging ice - before Harris Teeter gave their ice out. Sad. Needless to say - no one should shop or buy gas there!

Underground lines lead to rotting and other issues and the utilities DO have the right of way to cut down trees and vegetation and do so. However, it appears that they are again behind on doing just this. It also should be a homeowner's or business owner's responsibility to be sure the trees they plant will not cause issues with power lines in the future.

On underground lines vs. those above ground - there is also an issue of the utilities not knowing where their lines are - it is insane when I have had to point out to utilities where the power lines or phone lines run - shouldn't they have a master plan. At least above ground, they can SEE the lines - underground you run into the fact that they can't see them, they could be dug up by someone who doesn't call Miss Utility and it would take much longer for restoration if they must dig up the lines to fix them.

JSGeare - I do agree that the power company - those out in the field did an amazing job but I think the communication with the community on how and when power is or would be restored should be out there so at least people will understand. An example would be if you go for an appointment and are on time and the receptionist tells you, "We are running about 10 minutes behind, we apologize for the delay." You understand. But if you are not told a thing and sitting there after the time of your appointment, you get a bit agitated. The same with the power restoration.

And communication on available cooling centers, ice drops - broadcasting on TV? The people who need it are not watching, they are in the dark! Even with radio, which is known not to make announcements as they should and in the detail they should. Somehow, we need some sort of system that would reach people more effectively and efficiently too.

Another issue with underground high voltage lines is the enormous cost of burying them. Those lines on the steel towers are energized as high as 765,000 volts. The cables are bare - they are "air insulated." You can't just dig a ditch and lay them in. You need thick insulation and/or separate tunnels and pipelines for them. But those lines are really NOT the issue - it is the secondary lines, and then the neighborhood lines which are exposed to falling trees, etc., that get damaged. Another complicating factor is the manner of distribution. Most everyone has noticed that the neighbors across the street have the light on, when your own are out. This is intentional, and your house is wired the same way; thus bedroom ceiling lights may be on one breaker; but outlets on another. The idea is to assure there is at least SOME power available locally (to a neighborhood or to the room of a house) during a widespread, but still local, outage. But even this prudent distribution was challenged by a wide area outage such as we experienced. If a lot of plugs are pulled at a lot of places, all at the same time, entire systems and subsystems go down -exactly what happened.

I interviewed a work crew early in the recovery, to ask the general extent of the outage and any rough idea as to restoration. The reply was this: "Mister, we don't even know yet what's broken or where. All we know is that about a million people have no power, and our first job is to track down the specific problems. My best guess is a week or 10 days." That's when I started looking for a hotel room. But given a disaster so wide that it can't really be measured, it is difficult to tell the public when any place in particular will be back on line. That said, there were general announcements in the media indicating that the first places to be restored would be the ones with the highest population density. This makes sense, and at least allows us to have some idea of our place in line, if not an estimate of time to restoration.

It is exactly right that the people who most need access to media announcements (which were far too infrequent) can't get it. The options are the car radio, or a battery powered portable radio. But that's only half the story. I spend hours scanning the dial for news and information. One local news station paid attention to it in terms of reporting damage and parroting news releases, but they could have done much more. I am reminded of the floods which threatened Cumberland MD, about 10 years ago. There, a local station dedicated every minute to the developing situation, which included calls from listeners and constant official updates and instructions. Resources came together almost magically - food, transportation, shelters, rescue ops - among a community whose official and citizen response stands as a model for all others. Here? Back to music. Most unimpressive.

A couple of thoughts an disasters ad power companies. First of all, I have never had a problem with them trimming as needed. Howeer, I know of some accasions where they were approached about certain trees, and basically decided to ignore it until a storm took them down. Well, a storm did, and the whole block was taken out as a result for several days. They just didn;t want to spend the money to do it.

Secondly, they now hire contractors, instead of having regular employees in an attenot to get around unions and trainging. The result is crappier service and recovery after a storm. Saying they didn't plan is not really quite accurate. They don't have people available to begin with. The result is poorer service, greater loss for business and the economy after a disaster, and less mantainance. Write your state rep and senator to put pressure on them. Of course they don't know where the damage is - they don't have anyone really focused pon that like they did in the past. Someone living and working in Ohio is going to have a clue when they drive down to cut trees.

We can have better, and we deserve better. As a little girl I know we ot better. No power for a week in the City? Bull. We never were out of power like that as a little girl, and that icludes all except a few occasions out in the County. Think there weren't storms then?

@Caesonia: And when I was a little boy, back before there were styrofoam cups, we didn't experience the current problems, either. But we must bear in mind that, back then, electricity was actually cheap owing to production from coal fired (and quite dirty) power plants which were more widely distributed. So cheap, in fact, that power companies were promoting "Gold Medallion, All Electric Homes." Remember those? But over the years, the combined impact of stricter environmental controls, consolidation of power companies, a rapidly growing economy, and the control of rates by public utility commissions (or similar bodies) among other factors have resulted in re-allocation of resources among the utilities, with the results you have seen. And some credit should be given, I think, to those who said they had never, in their entire lives, seen a storm like the ones we just had. Not just the peculiar nature of the storm, but the vast stretches it covered. The power companies can, of course, design the system to withstand this kind of occurrence - but are the consumers ready and willing to pay for it?

That said, I will confess to some suspicions about the explanation that "we didn't have time to prepare for this." In fact, there WAS time, because the storms originated hundred of miles to the west of us. And the storms at the point of origin were as nasty there as they were here. So, there was time, and the weather plots were fairly accurate. I'm more given to think that no one believed the storms would be as bad as they were. But being caught off guard is hardly an excuse, either.


The fact that infrastructure demands have changed, or that regulations have changed, are to some extent non sequitors. They have changed and created more customers. There is also a difference between a true downtown area and people who want to live in spread out sprawl. What rising energy costs bring is innovation and a heat pump today is considerably more efficient than one made just 10 years ago. People will simply buy and make more energy efficient homes as costs go up.

None of that has to do with the energy providers complaining about unprecendted storms when that is simply not the case. The Derecho was definitely unusual, but destructive summer storms themselves with high enough winds to bring down lots of trees, and large lines of them are not. The fact is, they want to rely on bringing in work crew contractors from several states away, and the result in crisis is? You got it. Bad.

Monopolies cut services and raise prices, that's why we regulate. I think it's time that a little more is looked into regarding crisis mode, such as large storms. We might pay a few pennies more per watt hour, but the damage the downtime does to our economy is far higher.

@Caesonia: Last time I checked, a "non sequitur" referred to a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement. So I await the faulty conclusion to be drawn from the simple statement that demands or regulations have changed. Perhaps you mean that the outcomes of a more vulnerable power system do not follow from the demands and regulation. That may be true, or not, but it is no greater a stretch than to say imported work crews are the result of the crisis. I should also note that while electric devices and buildings have become more energy efficient, they have not been deployed over a short period of time and such gains in efficiency as they have made are offset to some extent by the number of power consuming units coming on line. All of this the end result of energy, environmental and international policy, market forces, regulation, insurance recoveries, and good old Mother Nature. Exactly which of these, or which combination of these, is the cause of the situation at hand is difficult to say; the most we may reasonably do is to recognize that multiple actors are at work.

That said, the subject matter of this article was local preparedness for the next big thing, and this is an area over which we stand a better chance to improve the effectiveness of civil response. When the Emergency Management Coordinator doesn't seem to know how a telephone works, I get a bit nervous. Consequently, I would be more willing to pay a few more dollars in local taxes to bolster emergency response planning and resources then I would be to send a few more bucks to the electric company.

@JSGeare The emergency coordinator's knowledge of how a telephone works seem about equal to your knowledge of why household electrical systems have multiple circuits. HInt, it isn't so your bedroom lights stay on if the kitchen breaker goes. That probably isn't your job though, I hope.

@blinded: I have cited but one reason for the distribution of power along branch circuits in a typical residence; others include load balancing, code requirements for dedicated and or protected circuits, economy of materials and future access to circuits, just for starters. Work alongside a master electrician for a few years and you'll learn a great deal about why they do what they do. Work along side a different electrician, and learn why the first one was wrong. Reading the code book doesn't hurt, either. Be that as it may, the paucity of my knowledge about residential wiring does not excuse the deficiency of the coordinator.

If we doubled the emergency dept funding we would probably get more people behind a desk making 75K and ready to give advice. During a storm they would have a land line so they could keep the advice coming. After the storm they could go back to planning.