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Blackout Knocks Off Heat on Coldest Night

Nearly 3,800 residents are forced to endure early season snow storm without electricity.

The timing could not have been worse, but the response was swift. On one of this year's coldest days barely 12 hours before the season's first powerful winter storm, the electricity went out for nearly 3,800 Herndon residents Wednesday. In response to the widespread outage, the American Red Cross and Fairfax County Emergency Services set up an emergency shelter at Herndon High School Wednesday evening.

However, despite outages that primarily ranged from 48 to 72 hours long, record overnight low temperatures and the threat of snow, only three area residents took advantage of the emergency overnight accommodations. Many residents found shelter with family and friends while others braved the cold, the old fashioned way, with candles and blankets.

<b>SADI ANEM</b> and his family were one of few thousand Herndon-area residents who lost power Wednesday morning. Anem and his wife, Asma, and their two children Maryam, 12, and Mohammed, 7, were the first customers to check out the Herndon High shelter. "I was taking a shower when all of a sudden there was no hot water," he said. "My first thought was that my wife hadn't paid the electric bill."

While sitting in the Herndon High cafeteria, Asma Anem recalled, with obvious bemusement, her husband's reaction to the outage earlier that day. "Yeah, that's what he thought, but I always pay the bill," Asma Anem said, laughing.

It was not until he was driving to work that Sadi Anem found out what exactly had happened. After touring the gymnasium, the family took advantage of the free food in the school's cafeteria. "It's crazy, I have never heard of anything like this happening before," said Sadi Anem, who relocated to Virginia from San Jose, Calif., a little more than a year ago. "It's nice that they have this option, but I don't think we will be staying here tonight."

<b>COLUMBIA GAS </b>of Virginia reportedly lost pressure at its Barnes Field station shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, said Bob Innes, a company spokesman. Homes and businesses south of the Dulles Toll Road and north of Route 50 along Frying Pan Road and Route 28 were affected. Nearly one week after the incident, the cause remains a mystery, said Innes. "We are still investigating the exact root of the problem," he said. "Rest assured we continue to monitor the situation and we have made some adjustments to the site in question. Seeing as how we made it through the weekend with the low temperatures is a very good sign."

Columbia Gas had restored service to all but 600 of the 3,753 customers affected by the Herndon blackout by Thursday afternoon, barely one day after the lights and the heat went out, the company said. As of Tuesday, Dec. 10, fewer than 20 customers remained without power. "Those are customers who haven't been home and we haven't been able to make contact with," Innes said, adding that each home's pilot light had to be relit, one by one.

The company brought in 150 employees from as far away as Ohio to work round-the-clock after the loss in pressure was first reported Wednesday morning. Working in teams, representatives went door-to-door to shut-off individual meter settings, complete repairs, return gas to the underground piping system and then they were required to return to each property to re-establish service and relight customer pilot lights, Innes said.

<b>FAIRFAX COUNTY</b> opened the doors to the temporary shelter at 6 p.m., Wednesday. Officials closed the shelter at 6 p.m., Thursday night, after Columbia Gas reported making "significant progress."

Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokesperson, said that by late Thursday afternoon, there was "no longer a need to provide a shelter facility."

The shelter which was manned by representatives from the Red Cross had 300 cots ready in Herndon High's warm though sparsely furnished auxiliary gym, in case residents decided to wait the winter storm out in the shelter. Cafeteria workers from the school stayed onsite to provide food, including pizza, soup, cookies and hot tea for the volunteers and any potential shelter residents.

"We came because we wanted to help, we saw it on the news," said Flora Curry, a Herndon resident who came with her daughter, Shay, to volunteer at the shelter. "Besides we live so close, we can still walk home."

While opening their doors to the public, officials urged affected residents to find shelter with friends or family. "It's a cot in a gym," said Courtney Prebich, spokesperson for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Area. "They may, in fact, be more comfortable in a warm bed tonight."

Fitzgerald agreed, but added that the county understood that because it is the holiday season, residents might not be able to spend money to stay in a nearby hotel. "We are here if they need us," she said, shortly before the doors opened Wednesday night.

As it turned out, they weren't needed as reporters easily outnumbered those seeking shelter at Herndon High on Wednesday and Thursday.