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Isabel Barrels through Vienna

Mass power outages, street closures left in its wake

Because of Hurricane Isabel, Vienna resident Katherine Harris adopted a fast-food diet. Her power had gone out, so she couldn't cook.

"The Lord giveth and he taketh away, and he does what he wants to do," Harris said, as she was taking pictures of the storm damage along Park Street. "I'm just thankful nobody's hurt."

Harris was just one of thousands in the region who felt the impact of Hurricane Isabel as it glided from the Atlantic Coast to Canada. The storm, which started as a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic with 155-plus mph winds, hit the Washington metropolitan region as a tropical storm last Thursday, Sept. 18.

While Vienna only received 1.95 inches of rain, it was the wind that caused much of the damage throughout the area, with downed trees causing closed streets and extensive power outages. During the height of the outages, 1.8 million Virginia and North Carolina residents were without electricity. Further, all of Fairfax County's four water treatment plants lost power, causing residents to boil water and restaurants to limit their beverage selections.

"There's really nothing you can do," said Deidra Denson of Vienna, whose large front-yard tree fell on her house at 10:25 p.m., Thursday, while she was on the telephone with a friend. Denson spent Friday waiting for estimates on the tree removal and waving at passersby gawking at the damage done to the back portion of her house.

Because of Hurricane Isabel's slow journey to the East Coast, weather forecasters had been monitoring the storm's progress for weeks. The extra time allowed Vienna to prepare for the storm, which also resulted in closure of local schools and the federal government.

During the week before the storm, the town stocked up on yellow tape, filled 100 sandbags, placed portable stop signs near intersections, and put up barriers in areas known for flooding.

Seventy-five staff workers from Vienna's Public Works Department divided up into three teams and worked all day Wednesday and in 8- to 10-hour shifts Thursday and Friday, according to Dennis King, Public Works director. Although King had never witnessed a storm of similar magnitude pass through Vienna, he worked with Fairfax County when Hurricane Agnes whipped through the area in the early 1970s.

"I anticipated from that experience that we better be ready for this one," King said.

Once town staff discovered the power was out, they coordinated with Vienna Police to set up stop signs. On Friday, they began to assess road conditions, and cleared away downed branches and trees that didn't hit power lines. When they found trees tangled up in power lines, they coordinated with Dominion Virginia Power for their removal, King said.

Indeed, the prolonged power outage had several consequences felt throughout the community. Police officers directed traffic at the town's busier intersections and fielded calls from frantic citizens on water supply and contamination, electricity and phone lines.

"We knew it was coming, and people had prepared for it as best as they could," said Vienna police chief Bob Carlisle.

The power outage caused concern for the county's water treatment plants, which lost power early Thursday morning for several hours. Although Vienna gets its water supply mainly from Falls Church and has two wells and two elevated storage tanks for backup, some water comes from county treatment facilities. When Fairfax County reported outages at its water treatment plants, the town stopped using county water and started using its reserves. But as Fall's Church's water supply dwindled, the town started using county water and asked people to boil it before drinking. The town also had to ensure it had enough water in the system for fighting fires. The town's storage tanks weren't replenished until 3 a.m., Monday, according to King.

The problems with the water supply, as well as no electricity, cost area restaurants some business and lost food due to spoilage, as empty parking lots off Maple Avenue on Friday made the area look like a ghost town.

Grace Najdi of the Amphora Restaurant was sending customers to Amphora's Herndon location because the Vienna restaurant didn't have any power. It was closed for business Friday morning and sent all its perishable food to Herndon, Najdi said.

As Isabel departed, residents braved the outdoors, having no electricity at home. Cars drove down Park Street marveling at the damage two older trees had done to two neighboring homes near Park and Moore Avenue Southwest.

"We've had a lot of passersby and lookers. And they look and wave," said Wendy Yorkdale, as she completed raking her front yard facing Park Street. "Now we're in the big process of cleaning up."

Indeed, assessing the damage was the next step for many residents as well as the Town of Vienna.

"I was concerned whether or not my car would be hit," said Vienna resident Pauline Meyer, who had stayed in Fairfax City during the storm with her son.

A few doors down from Yorkdale, Denson, whose house was impacted by a downed tree, said she needed to get the roof patched.

"That tree was supposedly healthy," Denson said, remarking that she already had duct tape and plastic stored up from past disasters.

King, meanwhile, was thankful the town didn't receive more than two inches of rain, because that would've caused flooding. But now the town has until Oct. 21, when leaf collection starts, to clear up all the debris. Teams will go through the town once, cut up larger debris, send the debris to the county for grinding, then go through the town again to do special trash pickups for the 250 households that had asked for it before the storm.

"There's still a considerable amount of work to do," King said.