Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Isabel was 'Transformational' for Va. Utilities, Emergency Managers

In the widespread scope of its impact, the 2003 storm was the worst natural disaster Virginia has ever sustained.

Hurricane Isabel was a watershed for Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power and state emergency managers.

"It was transformational in every way for all of us," said Rodney Blevins, Dominion Virginia Power's vice president for distribution operations.

In the widespread scope of its impact, the 2003 storm was the worst natural disaster Virginia has ever sustained, said Michael Cline, the state's coordinator of emergency management.

Isabel hit Virginia on Sept. 18-19, 2003, and left in its wake more than 2 million electricity customers without power, $1.6 billion in property damage, 36 storm-related fatalities, and more than 10,400 damaged or destroyed homes and businesses.

Simply clearing away the debris took 660,000 dump-truck loads.

Isabel produced the greatest wind and storm surge in the region since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane, according to the National Weather Service's Wakefield office.

"Isabel will also be remembered for the most extensive power outages ever in Virginia," the weather service said, "and permanent change to the landscape from all the fallen trees and storm surge."

For most Virginians -- about 80 percent of the state -- those crippling power outages were Isabel's immediate impact on their lives.

For Dominion Virginia Power, the state's largest electric company with 2.3 million subscribers, "the scale of the restoration effort was far greater than anything we'd faced before," said Blevins, who is responsible for the utility's storm response.

Before Isabel's rampage, the company focused storm restoration efforts on getting its own customers back on line. "Our mindset changed after that," Blevins said. "Now it's, 'How can we minimize the effect of severe weather on citizens?'"

Among the steps utility and emergency managers have taken as a result of Isabel are:

  • heightening the coordination of public and private responses to natural and man-made catastrophes;
  • identifying and prioritizing the critical public and community services in each locality;
  • providing better information on the status of power restoration;
  • emphasizing early damage assessment to better target repairs; and
  • improving mutual aid arrangements among utilities and public agencies.

"Even without Isabel, some of it would have happened," Cline said, "but Isabel's been a catalyst for a lot of initiatives that have happened in the last 10 years."

Winds reached 107 mph at Gwynn's Island in Mathews County, the weather service reported.

However, Blevins said, "it's not 'that the wind's blowing.' It's 'what the wind's blowing.' " Said Cline, "The big impact was from trees falling and the root balls they created."

While Isabel poured 10.6 inches of rain on Toano in James City County and 6.7 inches on Midlothian in Chesterfield County, the ground in Virginia was already saturated when the storm hit, making thousands of trees easily susceptible to being yanked from the soft soil by the widespread tropical storm-force winds.

Wind-thrown trees brought down power lines, and their root balls pulled up water lines and ripped up roadbeds, Cline said. Fallen trees and flooding rains blocked hundreds of roads across the state.

Before Isabel, Dominion Virginia Power knew which of its electric customers were critically important for public life and safety -- such facilities as medical centers, water pumping stations, military and homeland security installations, major telecommunication switching stations, emergency operation centers and gas stations. But the company could not quickly check its outage management system to find out which critical facilities were without power in order to focus repairs on them.

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