by Gene Marrano
Freak Storm System Takes Several States and Southwest Virginia By Surprise
They call it “Derecho,” a term now seared into the minds of Roanokers after an up close and personal experience of the unusual natural event last Friday. That’s the night when hurricane-force winds of 80-90 mph blew into the valley just before 9 pm, wrecking havoc before moving on.
On I-581 heading towards downtown Roanoke debris including what appeared to be hay, blew across the highway at high velocity, while cars crept along in the reduced visibility, drivers gripping steering wheels tightly in order to stay in control.
“It almost blew my minivan off the road,” said Peg McGuire, who handles communication duties for the Virginia Museum of Transportation, “I had to pull over.” Near Roanoke Regional Airport, others reported that they had trouble staying on the pavement as they attempted to turn from Thirlane onto Hershberger.
In the concrete canyons of downtown Roanoke, leaves, branches, paper and other debris funneled through the streets while people took cover in doorways. Tree limbs, that came down in the city, blocked off Kirk Avenue near the Music Hall and smashed an automobile parked in front of Center in the Square. The massive straight-line wind storm was over almost as soon as it started, shortly after 9 pm.
The Derecho, which began in the midwest and swept across to the eastern United States, was a byproduct of the tremendous heat buildup that saw temperatures rise to 100 degrees-plus in Roanoke. But the worst was yet to come as the windstorm downed trees and limbs, snapping power lines that has left many in the dark – and without air conditioning – for days.
Downed trees meant extensive property damage. Officials at AEP said it was the largest and most widespread power outage they have ever experienced. Crews were sent throughout Virginia and West Virginia to restore power to critical infrastructure properties such as hospitals, public services and gas stations before turning to residential areas – a necessity that will leave many Roanoke residents in the dark well into the coming weekend.
The electrical outage led to the failure of a water pumping station in Vinton that brought about an advisory to boil water or pick up bottled supplies at a municipal facility. It also meant the opening of “cooling stations” in the region, including one at the Roanoke Civic Center’s special events hall. That center became an overnight facility for those seeking to beat the dangerous heat. About forty families were reported to be using the cooling center in Roanoke at one point last Sunday afternoon.
Roanoke City, Roanoke County and the American Red Cross combined to open up the cooling center, where water was also available. Roanoke City also offered some advice for beating the heat: wear light colored clothing that absorb less sun, avoid high-protein foods that can increase body temperatures, drink plenty of water and avoid overly strenuous activities.
Roanoke County also offered bottled water at several fire and rescue stations, and in some cases ran the pumps for citizen’s wells.
The Salvation Army stepped up on Monday to offer free meals to people using the Civic Center as a shelter. Commercial properties like Tanglewood Mall were without electricity earlier in the week. Dozens of traffic lights were still non-functional as late as Wednesday with police officers directing vehicles through the busier intersections.
LewisGale Regional Health System hospitals reported an increase in those being treated for heat-related issues last weekend. “All four of our hospitals have been working together to meet the increased demand for services [in] this challenging time,” said LewisGale President Victor Giovanetti.
From Friday evening through Monday morning the Roanoke County’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) had answered more than 5,000 calls from the public. Of that number, 1,250 were calls for assistance that were dispatched and handled by Police and Fire and Rescue personnel.
The Roanoke County Administration Center in the Cave Spring area remained closed as of press time on Wednesday and may be without power through the rest of the week, even though other parts of Southwest County had electricity as AEP crews worked overtime to restore service.
The power outages, which stretched to parts of the Roanoke Valley and beyond became a boon for some local restaurants and fast food eateries. “We sold out of breakfast this morning – the first time that I can remember,” said a clerk at the Country Store on Starkey Road. At the head of the line a woman from Goodview said her neighborhood was one of those without electricity. Gasoline was also in short supply in many locations as deliveries were cut short due to outages at transfer stations.
Like a band of Wild West marauders that blew through town causing mass mayhem before moving on, few who experienced it will ever forget this “Derecho” any time soon.