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Isabel Highlighted Emergency Needs

County pushes for better communication, advises residents to prepare for 10 days without power in emergencies.

More than a week after Hurricane Isabel swept through Arlington, Luciana Divine still felt its effects. Without hot water or power, the North Arlington resident dealt with more than just frustration and inconvenience.

“My husband has diabetes, and insulin should be refrigerated,” said Divine, on Sept. 26. “We have no refrigeration. We got these bags of ice and put them in the cooler, but they melt. A whole week — it’s been a disaster.”

Kristen Papademetriou was still smiling after a week in the dark, but at seventh months pregnant, the lack of a working kitchen was wearing on her. “Carryout isn’t good for a baby,” she said.

Now that the cleanup and recovery efforts are complete, local officials have begun sifting through information on Isabel’s aftermath, hoping to learn from the experience. County officials are compiling an after-action report that should be completed within 60 days. In addition to analyzing the county’s response to the disaster, local government leaders and emergency personnel will press Dominion Virginia Power for an independent audit and improved service from the power company, which saw more than 1.8 million customers lose power as a result of the storm.

Some residents, such as Papademetriou and Divine, were without power more than a week. In the past, Arlington County’s emergency preparedness guidelines advised resident to have enough supplies to take shelter in their home for three days after a natural disaster.

Officials say that Isabel made it plain that that standard isn’t enough, and are now advising residents that in any weather emergency, they should be prepared to be stuck inside, without utilities, for 10 days.

ISABEL’S WAKE OFFERS real lessons in the importance of emergency planning, said Jim Schwartz, Arlington’s director of Emergency Management. “Basic preparedness covers a wide spectrum,” he said.

Residents are still being encouraged to sign up for the Arlington Alert system, which delivers real-time information on public safety concerns via e-mail and text-message cell phones and pagers. The system saw a large increase in subscribers during Isabel and now reaches almost 5,000 residents.

Emergency management ran relatively smoothly during the storm. But there were problems getting accurate and timely information about power outages. County officials are pressing Dominion to make changes in how they report information.

Elsewhere in the area, Pepco, the power company serving Washington, D.C., and most of the Maryland suburbs, sent employees to the Emergency Operations Centers in each jurisdictions it serves. Dominion sent none.

The company also lumps Arlington and Alexandria together in their reports, which county emergency planners said made it difficult to get localized information.

FRUSTRATION TOOK OVER for some residents as they tried to get power restored in the week after the storm. “Every time we call the power company, they say you are not within our working district,” said Divine.

“I think we’re lost and forgotten,” added Papademetriou.

Indeed, identifying all areas without power proved a major difficulty. As county cleanup crews worked with Dominion, a lot of communication just consisted of verifying outages, said County Manager Ron Carlee.

One lesson that Isabel taught, he said, is that it’s important to call, and keep calling the power company when the power goes out. “Don’t assume that your neighbors have done it, and don’t assume you’re fed by the same source just because you’re both out.” Some reports after the storm indicated that county crews were responsible for clearing trees before Dominion workers could repair downed power lines. “That’s just miscommunication,” said Carlee.

Dominion did experience problems coordinating with Verizon in some cases, and the resulting delays created safety risks. Live wires brought down by Isabel burned off a utility pole at its base at the intersection of 23rd and Illinois streets before Dominion and Verizon crews could coordinate to shut down the power.

FALLING TREES WERE the main culprit in bringing down power lines and causing outages. County crews cleared over 400 fallen trees in one week.

While some of those incidents were unavoidable due to high winds and saturated ground, “many of the tree failures may have been preventable,” said Robert Corletta, the county’s Urban Forester.

Corletta advised residents to take care of trees on their property before winter storms threaten. The most basic tree maintenance is simply keeping an eye out for visible decay, he said. It’s also important to remember the root system when planning any landscaping or construction. Even though mature trees can extend their roots over a large area and deep underground, the bulk of the root system lies within the top 18 inches of soil, he said. Corletta urged residents to visit www.goodtreecare.com to find a certified arborist to perform any necessary tree maintenance.

Residents can also attend a program on tree maintenance and preservation at the National Rural Electric Cooperative on Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m.

RELIEF FOR RESIDENTS can still come from a number of sources. Initial estimates place damage to private property in the county at more than $20 million. Resident who sustained storm damage to their property may be eligible for relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency by calling 800-621-FEMA.

Arlington Economic Development staffers can provide disaster recovery information to local businesses, which also took hits

Stores in the Lee Harrison Shopping Center had only limited power for over a week after the storm. “It’s terrible, because a lot of our business is walk-in,” said Kathy Carter, a co-owner of Serendipity, a fine gifts and accessories store in the shopping center. The store is up and running again, and Carter expects business to recover.