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Hurricane Irene blows through, capping off a challenging week

Mother Nature dealt a triple blow to Colonial Beach last week beginning with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday, Aug. 23, a severe thunderstorm on Thursday, Aug. 25, and culminating with tropical storm strength wind and rain from Hurricane Irene beginning on Saturday, Aug. 27 in the morning and ending almost 24 hours later in the early hours of Sunday, Aug. 28. 

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes are normally rare occurrences and, never in the history of Colonial Beach have such major, potentially devastating natural events pummeled this small riverfront town within days of each

other.  Experiencing back-to-back disasters tests the very foundation of individual and municipal mettle.  

The Earthquake

A 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Colonial Beach at 1:55 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23.  The quake was centered in Mineral, Va., in Louisa County, 75.1 miles away.  The shock waves from the quake could be felt as far away as Canada, North Carolina, Georgia and Michigan. 

As the shaking from the quake was felt throughout the town, neighbors at home ran outside, asking each other “Did you feel that?” Assistant Fire Chief Mike Worrell reported that “surprisingly, no calls came in” through the emergency dispatch system.  Damage was limited to wall hangings falling to the floor and minimal structural damage reported to homes.  A 4.3 magnitude aftershock was felt by some beach residents at 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

The Internet, especially Facebook, lit up with postings from Virginia residents.  Many people were able to keep in touch with relatives using social media, as cell phone service providers were overwhelmed by the number of people calling out, resulting in no service for many users.  Several phone providers, such as Virgin Mobile, are still experiencing outages due to tower damage from the earthquake.
 
Wednesday’s Storm

As folks were recovering from the very idea that an earthquake had occurred locally, a severe thunderstorm hit our area Thursday evening with heavy winds, lightning and thunder. 

Hurricane Irene

Last week, all eyes and ears were glued to the weather reporting agencies as Irene became a Category 2 hurricane headed up the east coast and was projected to reach the Tidal Potomac where it meets the Chesapeake Bay at approximately 2 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28. 

Locally, the town officials prepared by holding a strategy session Thursday morning with all departments to go over the preparedness plan and start putting the plan into place.  On Friday, at approximately 11 a.m. the town issued a voluntary evacuation order for homes on low-lying areas closest to the waterfront. 

After an early Saturday morning meeting, the town confirmed the evacuation order was voluntary and issued guidelines for the beachfront.  The beach, boardwalk and town pier were closed Saturday morning.  A shelter was opened at the elementary school at 5 p.m.  According to Town Manager Val Foulds the shelter was used by six residents and a police officer was available on-site at all times to ensure the safety of those residents. 

The rain and winds from Irene began about 9:30 a.m. and gained momentum throughout the day and night.  Foulds maintained a command center and Rob Murphy, Director of Public Works, Police Chief Kenneth Blevins, Sr., personnel from the fire department and rescue squad were in constant radio contact throughout Saturday night as the storm progressed.
 
Blevins opted to keep the police department up and running throughout the night, patrolling the streets. “I am an old fashioned cop,” Blevins said. “It was dark outside and our citizens, especially our seniors, are probably scared.  We needed to let them know we got their back.” 

By dawn’s light on Sunday morning, the devastation wrought by Irene became clear.  The entire town was without power, trees were down on homes, out buildings and blocking roadways.  Worrell reported the department received about 70 calls between Saturday night and Sunday evening.  Most calls reported power lines down and trees down. 

“The trees —we can get those out of the way,”  Worrell said. The power lines, however, “we tape off the area.” Worrell also reported the department was able to assist two people on Bancroft Avenue after a tree fell onto their home while they were inside.  No serious injuries or fatalities were reported. 

Crews from Dominion Virginia Power arrived on scene early on Sunday and began the daunting task of restoring power to the beach.  The initial priority was restoring power to those areas that support town infrastructure, such as pump stations.  As late as Tuesday afternoon, power had been restored to most areas in town, and Dominion Virginia workers were seen working throughout the night on Monday at Bluff Point where a power line had fallen into Ware Pond. 

“We couldn’t be more proud of the employees of this town,” Foulds said. “Everyone worked together like a well-oiled machine.” 

She also provided much praise to the volunteers at both the fire department and the rescue squad for “their service to the town’s residents.”

The town has set up Dumpsters at the Public Works Facility, 2301 McKinney Blvd., for use by town residents to dispose of storm debris beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 30, until 7:30 p.m. each day until further notice. 

As the power is restored and businesses re-stock and re-open, this reporter and many other beach residents are reminded of the unpredictable nature of waterfront living and the unparalleled majesty of the star-filled nights that follow the storm.  

Kathy Flanagan

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