CHARLES TOWN – It’s never easy to endure a heat wave, but Jefferson County residents and others across the mid-Atlantic have faced additional challenges following a massive June 29 windstorm that left millions without power for days.
“So many people are dealing with so much right now,” said Amy Jones, the county’s Health Department administrator. “That’s why we’re stepping up and setting up cooling stations, handing out ice and water. So many people don’t have electric, which means they don’t have AC. Many don’t have water because their wells require electric.
“That’s why we’re doing everything we can to help.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has described the storm as “historic” in its devastation. He, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin all declared states of emergency soon after the storm, and this week President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration for West Virginia.
The straight-line windstorm – labeled a derecho, from the Spanish word for “straight” – quickly moved through parts of Indiana and Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, the Mountain State, Virginia, Maryland and D.C.
In the Panhandle and other areas hit by the storm, havoc included uprooted trees that blocked driveways and roads; mangled power lines; blown-out office windows; blown-off buildings’ roofs; and cars, trucks, fences, patio furniture and more left crushed by fallen trees.
The storm and its aftermath are being blamed for more than a dozen deaths so far, including an elderly Maryland woman who was killed in her bed when a tree fell on her home and several who perished in weather-related traffic accidents.
Few in the Panhandle could recall ever going so long without power.
Scott Surgeoner, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the company had called on every resource available to get electricity restored as quickly as possible.
Each crew is putting in a 16-hour shift, then taking an eight-hour break before resuming work, Surgeoner said. “Our crews are working around the clock,” he said. “We’ll continue to have workers out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until every last customer has power.”
But power company officials now are predicting it will be Sunday – nine days after the storm – before all customers in West Virginia have electricity again.
Tackling the job in West Virginia not only are local crews from Potomac Edison and MonPower but others in the FirstEnergy system from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Surgeoner said.
The company also has brought in contractors from Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere, he said. “All in all, we have about 400 crews working in the region right now,” he said. “Every available resource is being brought to bear. Our customers are first and foremost and we do appreciate their patience with us.”
The storm that hit June 29 was highly unusual in that it was long-lasting and covered so large an area, said Will Astle, a Berkeley County resident who has served as an on-the-ground spotter for the National Weather Service for more than 20 years.
“This kind of storm isn’t at all typical for our area,” said Astle, who said he hoped the devastation would prompt more people to buy weather radios to keep themselves informed as the weather service issues warnings. “We did know this storm was coming. It hit southern West Virginia a couple of hours before it hit us here.”
The storm was unprecedented in that it devastated so much of the state, said Amy Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Tomblin.
She said 53 of the state’s 55 counties reported major power outages and “major destruction.” Only Hancock and Brooke counties didn’t have widespread power outages and other problems, she said.
“We’ve never dealt with a statewide disaster quite like this,” she said. “Flooding, for instance, might affect a specific region of the state but this calamity has affected almost every street in every community in every corner of the entire state. This is a storm that’s absolutely, truly devastating.”
She herself and many on the governor’s staff don’t have power back on at their own homes. “We’re also living it,” said Goodwin, who is from Wheeling. “To get all the resources into all the places they’re needed, you bet it’s been a challenge.”
The night of the storm, about 700,000 state residents were without power. “That’ll be down to 300,000 by [the Fourth],” she said. “And what we’re seeing now is just what you’d expect from the people of West Virginia. We’re getting calls saying, ‘OK, my power’s back on. What can I do to help?’”
Sending money or dropping off donations of soup, peanut butter and other nonperishables to food banks is one way anyone can help, Goodwin said. “So many people have lost all the food they have,” she said. “Food banks across the state are almost entirely out.”
Goodwin points out the lack of electricity isn’t about living “in luxury” for many West Virginians.
“It’s not a convenience issue,” she said. “We are dealing with sweltering temperatures and West Virginia’s citizenry includes a lot of seniors. We have a lot of citizens who need power for their oxygen containers. There are folks with insulin and other medicines that need to be refrigerated. A lot of stores don’t have any more ice to sell to people to let them keep anything cold.
“We have some hospitals running on generators. These are all serious, serious issues that we’re working hard to resolve.”