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Life After Isabel

County-level emergency preparations help officials, residents recover from hurricane.

As winds picked up and the first drops of rain began to fall, Michelle Volpe and Chris Kohler smiled at the approaching 700-mile-wide, category 2 Hurricane Isabel.

“We just wanted to get blown around a little bit,” said Kohler. The Courthouse residents, both natives of Cleveland, wouldn’t pass up the chance to experience a hurricane up-close. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Volpe. “So I want to see some action.”

By the time it was over, many residents had seen all the action they wanted. Dominion Virginia Power reported that over 82 percent of the company’s coverage area lost power — more than 1.8 million customers. As of press time 625,422 were still in the dark—19,763 in Arlington and Alexandria, according to Bob Fulton, a Dominion spokesperson.

As the storm approached on Thursday, Kohler and Volpe weren’t alone on Courthouse sidewalks. Most bars and restaurants were open for business, and grocery stores were filled with people buying the staples.

Milk, meat, veggies, fruit—it’s nothing too drastic,” said Clarendon resident Martha Conboy on her way to the store. Conboy expected Isabel wouldn’t cause much damage. In fact, she said, the storm might provide an opportunity for neighborhood bonding.

Other residents were taking precautions for the storm. “We staked down some trees so they wouldn’t blow over,” said Mark McEnearney, “and played some golf. I just got off the golf course.”

Hitting the links was the appropriate level of storm preparation, in the eyes of some observers. “People are freaking out,” said Jimmy Auclin. The Louisiana resident arrived in Arlington for a six-month business trip on Thursday morning, just before the storm rolled in. “I’m like, it’s only 100-mile-per-hour winds.”

AT ARLINGTON NATIONAL Cemetery, U.S. Army officials were concerned that high winds could endanger guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The commanding officer on duty last Thursday, Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Geary, couldn’t give his guards shelter unless wind speeds reached 120 miles per hour. To look out for his men, Geary took the guard post himself from 5:30-11 p.m.

“He did that to ensure that his soldiers would be safe out there,” said Kerry Sullivan, an Army spokesperson. “It’s a real positive story.

WIND SPEEDS DIDN’T reach the levels forecasted earlier in the week, but Isabel still packed a punch. With the ground saturated from a rainy spring and summer — almost twice as much rain as an average year — many residents feared flooding and uprooted trees would be the major cause for concern.

Officials considered that a primary issue as well, said Jim Schwartz, head of Arlington’s emergency management team. Local officials set up shop at the Emergency Operations Center at noon on Tuesday. The EOC, at 1400 Uhle St., allows the heads of various government departments, including police, fire, sheriff, schools and public works, to consolidate operations for greater efficiency.

“This is where the leadership comes together,” said County Manager Ron Carlee, who along with other officials came to the EOC with suitcases, ready for a possible 48-hour shift.

In the EOC, officials held regular briefings and coordinated countywide disaster plans. “We don’t make the decisions about what goes on in the field,” said Carlee. “We don’t second-guess or micromanage what they’re doing. What we need is to think ahead.”

That planning went down to the smallest detail, like how to stock county offices in case of power outage. One team in the EOC was in charge of procurement. “They have existing relationships with vendors, and they know where the best prices are,” said Carlee.

Footing the bill for hurricane preparations was an in important consideration, and officials in the EOC kept close tallies of every action and every expense. “We’ve done the bureaucratic stuff up front,” said Carlee. “We paid attention to detail from the beginning.”

The Manager declared a state of emergency for the county at 2:50 p.m. Thursday. The declaration will allow the county board to apply for state and federal disaster relief funds, to recoup some of the money spent on storm cleanup.

THOUGH ARLINGTON FARED better than many surrounding jurisdictions, the county will be looking at a substantial bill. In less than four days, workers from the Department of Public Works cleared over 400 trees or large limbs blocking streets and sidewalks.

Of the 250 signalized intersections in the county, 60 lights, or nearly 25 percent, lost power. That meant extra shifts for police officers to direct traffic, and extra work to repair the damage.

Storm damage costs will fall heavily on private citizens as well. Countywide, 44 cars were flattened by falling trees, 46 homes sustained major damage, 147 more homes took minor damage. Estimated damage to private property in the county exceeds $20 million.

County officials reported only one serious medical incident — firefighters performed a technical rescue of a man trapped in his bed after a tree fell on his house.

At Virginia Hospital Center—Arlington, the hospital’s emergency room was quiet during the storm, said Amy Goodwin, hospital spokeswoman. “As far as I know, we did not have any critical injuries as a result of Isabel,” she said.

Isabel meant a busy weekend for the Arlington County Fire Department. Under normal conditions, fire stations are left empty when firefighters respond to a call. During the storm, the department called in off-duty firefighters to keep each of the county’s 10 stations staffed at all times.

“A lot of the guys haven’t had much sleep in 36 hours,” said Capt. Mike Alvarado late Friday night. “Everybody is giving 110 percent. A lot of firefighters are willing to spend their time in the county rather than be home now.”

Alvarado, a 14-year veteran of the department, began his shift at 7 a.m. Thursday morning and wasn’t finished until 7 a.m. Saturday.