By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
Four days after the third worst storm in Virginia history, government officials and the utilities they regulate were still scrambling to restore order, while nearly 300,000 residents remained powerless in sweltering heat.
As with previous storms, the after-action reports will point to one deadly culprit: trees.
The vicious derecho — a broad front of fast-moving lightning storms, packing winds of up to 80 mph — slammed into the state Friday night. The state took a second punch Sunday night. All told, 1.2 million Virginians had their electricity knocked offline.
Laura Southard of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management predicted that power would not be fully restored for “a week or more.”
That recovery time tracks the aftermath of two bigger storms to strike the state: Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and Hurricane Irene last August.
In the wake of Irene, the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, issued a report that generally praised recovery efforts, but cited some deficiencies by power companies and power cooperatives.
“The staff believes utilities generally could take a more active role in protecting their systems against the threat of old, fragile trees outside of their rights-of-way,” stated the report issued in April, eight months after Irene and two months before the most recent blast.
Singling out the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, the report recommended that “DVP evaluate the need to more aggressively maintain distribution rights-of-way.”
SCC went on to urge that “utilities … intensify their efforts to work with municipalities and educate property owners with respect to the potential long-term benefits of removing aging, overgrown trees that exist outside of the utilities‘ rights-of-way, since these trees present a growing danger to the companies’ distribution lines.”
Ken Schrad, spokesman for the SCC, said nearly half of Dominion’s customers were knocked offline by the derecho.
By noon Tuesday, the company announced that 86 percent of its customers had power, but the utility did not respond to Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau‘s requests for commen.
In some respects, Schrad said the weekend storms were worse than a hurricane because they came on so quickly.
“The storm rolled out of the Midwest in 10 hours,” Schrad said. And like the hurricanes that preceded it, the derecho was largely a “tree event” in which fallen trees downed power lines
Schrad said SCC regulates the placement of high-voltage transmission corridors, but does not oversee local lines.
Asked by Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau if SCC rules require installation of underground lines, Schrad said no.
“There are no regulations for new (underground) lines,” he said, adding that the expense for burying existing lines can be “prohibitive.”
He pegged those costs at as much as $3,000 per customer.
“The companies will make the best decisions” on whether to maintain power cables above or below ground, Schrad said.
A total of 11 storm-related fatalities were confirmed as of Tuesday: two in Albemarle County, two in Bedford County, one in the city of Chesapeake, three in Fairfax County, one in Loudoun County, one in Montgomery County and one in Roanoke.
“At least six” of the deaths were caused by fallen trees, Southard said.
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office released a statement Tuesday indicating that:
- 40 localities have declared emergencies, and 20 local emergency operations centers remain open to coordinate assistance to their residents.
- 15 primary roads and 159 secondary roads remain closed. The Virginia Department of Transportation continues to coordinate with utility workers to remove downed trees and debris from roads so power lines can be repaired.
- The Virginia National Guard has 115 personnel staged in Fredericksburg, 30 in Lexington, 20 in Winchester and 10 in Bedford County.
- VDEM coordinated delivery of 62,000 gallons of water to Charlottesville and Albemarle, Alleghany, Bedford, Botetourt and Page counties.
The governor’s office did not estimate the cost of the storm.
“We are seeing outage numbers decline, and the power companies are working around the clock with extra staffing,” McDonnell said. “But the intense heat combined with lack of power continues to be a real and ongoing safety concern for us.”
T’ai Roulston, curator at the State Arboretum of Virginia, said there’s a “tension” between having large urban trees in close contact with power lines.
Ideally, Roulston said, communities and utilities would move power cables underground. Where that’s not feasible, he said citizens should be aware of the health of trees around them.
“Poorly rooted trees can pose a hazard and an arborist may be called in to remove them,” he said.
But Roulston cautioned that merely lopping off the tops of trees under power lines isn’t necessarily the best strategy.
“Pruning the top can weaken a tree and create added risk,” he said.