Powerless: How a three minute storm put the hurt on Charlottesville
As the stormclouds rolled in late on Thursday afternoon, June 24, commuters finishing work for the day may have planned on a wet ride home. They got a lot more than that as an intense three-minute storm commonly known as a "microburst" turned what should have been short drives into harrowing hours-long affairs plagued by downed trees and power lines. Unlike the much smaller June 3 microburst, however, most commuters' nightmares didn't end at their driveways, as 45,000 Dominion Virginia customers were rendered powerless by the storm, with some homes in the dark for as long as four days.
"This was worse than Hurricane Isabel," says Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner, noting that his department responded to 31 homes struck by trees– four more than during the remnants of Hurricane Isabel, a day-long storm event in September 2003. In the urban ring, another 15-20 houses were hit by trees, says Albemarle County Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, noting that the worst hit neighborhood was Bennington Road just off Barracks Road near Georgetown Road.
On 29 North, where many of the traffic lights remained functional thanks to generators, traffic crawled as the full impact of the storm revealed itself: towering pines snapped mid-trunk lined the western side, and utility poles leaned at precarious angles, wires dangling, lying across the road in some places.
Unable to get through on cell phones due to high call volume, some drivers tuned into news radio hoping for tips on shortcuts or unaffected roads.
"At all points I had at least four or five phone lines blinking," says Bailey Disselkoen, producer of Coy Barefoot's "Charlottesville Right Now" drive-time program on WINA.
"Some were asking, 'How do I get from one place to the other?'" she says. Others offered information about blocked roadways, but the most upsetting, says Disselkoen, was one report that a man in his vehicle on Rugby Road had been struck by a tree and was injured.
"Hearing them and not being able to help them was frustrating," says Disselkoen.
According to Chief Werner, rescue crews worked 45 minutes to extricate the injured man, who was transported to UVA Medical Center. Fortunately, Werner says, the man is recovering.
Indeed, Werner says he is "amazed" that there were no other injuries reported from winds so violent that they toppled hundreds of trees, tossed umbrellas and outdoor furniture, stripped metal roofing from downtown buildings, and even knocked the brick chimney from the Music Resource Center in the former Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Ridge Street downtown.
Just how violent? According to state climatologist Jerry Stenger, winds may have gusted to upwards of 75 mph, although the fastest measured windspeed during the storm was 58mph. And radar indicates that some areas in the eastern part of Charlottesville may have received as much as two inches of rain in minutes, he says.
While most people refer to such a short intense storm as a "microburst," Stenger says the more accurate description for Thursday's storm is multiple "downbursts," which are blasts of air that descend vertically when the atmosphere is unstable thanks to high temperatures and high dewpoints– the temperature at which water condenses. When such gusts hit the ground, they travel sideways causing major damage. During Thursday's storm, the temperature had hit a record-breaking 100 degrees and the dew point was relatively high at 72 degrees, Stenger says, optimal conditions for intense storm activity.
Although microbursts are relatively rare– before June 3, the last one that caused damage in Charlottesville proper was in 2005– Stenger doesn't believe the one-two June whammy signifies any change in the weather pattern. (While some have wondered if the storm might have been a weak twister, Stenger says there is no evidence of that.)
"You'd need to have a lot more data to go on before you could attach any significance," says Stenger, adding that the extreme damage was a result of the storm's location over a densely populated area rather than a sign of unusual strength.
Still, the maelstrom and the ensuing traffic snarls were only the beginning of a multi-day headache for those left in the dark with soon-to-spoil food.
"We were out of power for three days," says Eric Hughes, an employee at Ragazzi's restaurant in the Shopper's World shopping center on 29 North where power was out until Sunday. Because the restaurant ovens run on gas, says Hughes, "We were serving in the dark by candlelight on Thursday and Friday."
Especially frustrating, he says, was watching the lights turn on in most of the other shopping center's businesses soon after the storm blew past. Whole Foods– which saw a spike in prepared food sales, according to a manager– shared walk-in freezer space so the restaurant wouldn't lose its entire food stock. "It was like the whole Shoppers World had power," says Hughes, "but Ragazzi's and McDonald's didn't."
There were similar situations all over town– beacons of light amid darkened streets. Lucky 7 and Guadalajara on East Market Street didn't lose power and lines snaked out the doors as the hot, the hungry, and the bored sought refuge. Stoney's Grocery & Deli on Avon Street was another such refuge, and owner Marc Brake, a Charlottesville Police Sergeant, says they did a much brisker business than usual.
How did some get so lucky?
According to Dominion Virginia Power's Le-Ha Anderson, it's simple luck– adjacent buildings may run off different transformers than their neighbors. Anderson says Dominion brought in 113 bucket trucks and additional crews from around the state, but faced with massive tree damage and potentially live lines, work was slow going, she says, as crews worked to safely restore the main lines before heading to "tap lines" that feed electricity to secondary roads and neighborhoods.
The devastation begs the question: why the heck aren't these lines buried? In fact, a look at historic photos of Charlottesville from the 1920s shows that while cars and fashions have changed, the way we get our power hasn't– poles sticking out of the ground strung with high voltage lines has been status quo since the turn of the 20th century despite the fact that buried lines are the choice for most new developments.
The answer, as with so many things, is cost.
"It costs six times more to put power lines underground," Dominion spokesperson Dan Genest told the Hook in February following the second massive snowstorm of the winter, which knocked power out for 10,000 customers. And Greg Kelly, spokesperson for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which serves 30,000 customers in rural areas and was "minimally" affected by the latest microburst, cites a state funded study that puts the cost of undergrounding lines throughout the state at $94 billion.
Dominion's Anderson says that while cost is the number one deterrent, there are other reasons for keeping the lines above ground.
"Number two is reliability," she says, noting that if problems occur with underground lines, it's difficult to pinpoint the problem. In addition, she says, accessing underground lines might mean jackhammering roads or sidewalks, then breaking through built-in encasements that wrap the lines– all far more disruptive than repairing exposed wires.
"The downside is that during microbursts like we had in Charlottesville, you have danger of trees falling on lines," Anderson admits. And perhaps no one in Charlottesville understands that danger– and the powerlessness that goes with it– better than residents of Blue Ridge Road, off Barracks Road, where power wasn't restored until Sunday night or even Monday morning– four days after the lights went out.
"It was a long weekend," sighs Blue Ridge Road resident and dermatologist Anna Magee, on Monday afternoon, about 12 hours after her power was finally restored. A long weekend indeed, and hurricane season hasn't even begun.