For Elliot Meyer, 10, the storm was a chance of a lifetime. Elliot looked forward to seeing Hurricane Isabel tear through town, but he didn’t enjoy the idea of losing two snow days to the storm.
“There’s ups and downs. I like it because it was a hurricane and you could experience a disaster. Then again, we’re missing school,” Elliot said, as he and his sister Louisa, 13, and a friend, Ellison Haney, 7, looked at downed tree carnage that blocked Old Lee Highway Friday morning.
Anticipation and concern were among the emotions felt as the Washington area braced for Hurricane Isabel on Thursday, Sept. 18. Although the storm had started out as a Category 5 hurricane with 155-plus mph winds over the Atlantic, by the time it reached Washington, area residents experienced a tropical storm with 50-plus mph gusts and light rain.
Despite the lowered intensity, the federal government and local schools and businesses hunkered down and closed last Thursday and Friday. After the storm passed by, the area experienced prolonged power outages, affecting Fairfax County’s water supply and putting residents and traffic signals in the dark. Downed trees and branches also littered the streets, causing road closures and electrical problems.
While county residents were asked to boil water before drinking due to power outages at the county’s four water treatment plants, Fairfax City residents were told their water supply was safe, since it was separate from the county system and pumped from Loudoun County.
“I think we were, first of all, extremely lucky here in the city. Based on the track of the storm, it certainly could’ve been a lot worse,” said Fairfax City fire chief Tom Owens, whose department had been preparing for the storm since last Sunday, Sept. 14.
Preparations for Isabel began several days before the storm was predicted to hit. The Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department got staffing schedules in order, prepared apparatus and equipment, got chain saws ready in the event they would have to cut trees, and put extra units in service during the storm's peak.
“The good news about a hurricane is that it gives you a lot of time for planning,” Owens said.
The city’s Department of Public Works met with other city departments Monday, Sept. 15, to coordinate with preparation and cleanup. They topped off fuel tanks, ensured emergency generators were in order, and had sandbags and chain saws available, according to the department’s director John Veneziano. The department also instructed 100 staff workers that they might have to work 12-hour shifts throughout the storm and the following weekend.
Susan Gray, curator of the Fairfax Museum, spent the height of the storm Thursday evening at the Blenheim Mansion, periodically walking through the building to make sure there were no leaks or damage.
“It was just a precaution we wanted to take,” Gray said.
When the storm arrived, area citizens hunkered down in their basements, with batteries, flashlights and bottled water close by. The Meyers were in their basement watching "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone." When Cindy Meyer went upstairs to see the storm, she turned on the big floodlights at her backyard and saw 40-foot trees swaying in the wind.
“It was unnerving,” said Meyer of the sight and of the whistling noise coming from her back door. Their electricity turned off at 4:29 a.m. “But it really was a marvel, though.”
As the storm moved on, people crept out of their homes Friday morning and assessed the damage done to their yards and streets.
Throughout the weekend, the Fairfax area would slowly creep back to normal, with most power returning to homes and businesses Saturday evening, although some spots didn’t receive electricity until Sunday evening or Monday. The Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department reported no major injuries had occurred during the storm’s height or aftermath.
“I think everybody in the neighborhood is doing fairly well,” said Jack Caldwell of the Old Lee Hills neighborhood in Fairfax, as he was surveying the damage, shooting the breeze with three other friends, and joking that they had been standing out there since Tuesday.
“You do as well as you can with candles and batteries,” said Bill Scott, who was standing next to Caldwell. Both wondered how their neighbor John Russell got coffee, since there wasn’t any electricity. Russell replied that he found some at the Dunkin Donuts at Kamp Washington, where he was one of 22 in line.
“I did check the flashlight and the batteries,” Russell said, when asked what he did to prepare for the storm. “We had loads of candles. But that was about it.”
As they talked, a city public works truck drove into the street to check on an old tree that fell, blocking the road and causing a downed power line. The trucks would be a familiar sight throughout the city during the weekend, as crews cleared blocked roads. Crews will continue to clean up and pick up brush throughout the week, Veneziano said, although cleanup may not be finished for several weeks.