During the media coverage leading up to Hurricane Irene, one comment we often heard was that local governments up and down the East Coast were “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.” So even though the brunt of the storm eventually missed our area, the City of Falls Church was prepared for the worst, and recovered quickly, which meant City residents, businesses and employees were safe and suffered few service interruptions and inconveniences from the storm.
The City’s effective response and efficient recovery were the result of the City’s small but dedicated staff working long hours to plan, prepare and respond to a storm that was forecast to cause widespread damages. Our goals were to keep the public safe and well informed in the face of anticipated power outages, flooding and downed trees.
In days ahead of the storm, directors from every government department and the School superintendent met to prepare for possible power outages and wind damage. City inspectors visited construction sites to check for preparations against flying materials during the storm. Staff tested and fueled standby generators for use at City Hall, the Community Center, Public Utilities Pumping Stations and the Property Yard in the event of a power outage. In preparation for possible flooding, crews cleared debris from catch basins and storm drains.
The Urban Forestry crew was ready to handle downed trees, working 14 hours straight from Saturday night through Sunday morning. Most streets were safe and clear of any fallen trees by mid-day on Sunday. While it is unknown how many trees fell on private property, no City trees were lost along streets or in parks because of Hurricane Irene. Three trees fell into the City right of way.
Many staff worked safely around the clock in City Hall, on the streets, or at home on their computers Saturday and much of Sunday.
Thankfully Hurricane Irene didn’t flood or cause serious damage to government or school buildings. Approximately 3,000 households had no power at 6 a.m. Sunday and most traffic lights along Broad and many along Washington Street were dark. One of the water pumping stations lost power but was operated by a generator for several hours so customers never lost water service or water pressure during the storm.
Staff opened the Farmers’ Market on Saturday as usual; the Community Center and Library did not close on Saturday and were opened on time on Sunday. The Schools’ convocation for new staff went on as scheduled Monday morning.
Many staff worked safely around the clock in City Hall, on the streets, or at home on their computers Saturday and much of Sunday to respond to emergencies, monitor the storm’s damage, keep the public informed, keep streets open, and begin clean-up before the storm had passed. Public Works staff hooked up generators or installed temporary stop signs where traffic lights were without power along Broad and Washington streets.
Police patrolled streets throughout the storm to make sure residents and businesses stayed safe. The Emergency Operations Center was operating in a monitoring mode and staffed by the City Manager, Emergency Management Coordinator, Public Utilities Director and others to support crews in the field and share information with Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Dominion Virginia Power and other local governments.
A Storm Information Line was opened beginning at 6 a.m. Sunday. Employees from the City Clerk’s and Communications offices answered calls from citizens who expected to reach an automated message. While most callers asked when their power would be restored, the employees were able to provide valuable information including the fact that residents without power should not assume their neighbor has called the electric company and they should always call Dominion Power to report an outage at 866-366-4357. Although there were no water service interruptions, Public Utilities employees took phone calls from customers from 6 a.m. until noon on Sunday.
Keeping the public informed is critical during an emergency and the Communications staff provided frequent updates to the media and the public, posting information on the web site and Facebook, FCC-TV, Falls Church Alert and 1680 AM Radio. Information was provided in advance in the eFocus newsletter. (To learn more about the City’s emergency communications, including how to sign up for Falls Church Alert and eFocus, visit www.fallschurchva.gov or call 703-248-5003.) When inclement weather is forecast, check the website and stay tuned to TV and radio stations for the most current information. Don’t wait until the day before a storm to buy batteries, water and food. A lesson learned from the earthquake: be prepared to tell your family you are OK via text message and social media in case phone lines are overwhelmed.
The events of the past week – an earthquake and a hurricane – serve as a reminder that everyone needs to stay informed and be prepared. And let’s hope that what may become Hurricane Katia next week blows herself out to sea.
Barbara Gordon is the Director of Communications of the City of Falls Church.