Irene’s Aftermath

Farewell, Irene

By Editorial, Published: August 28, The Washington Post
HURRICANE IRENE’S rampage through the Washington area proved less destructive than had been predicted, but that doesn’t mean that officials were wrong to prepare meticulously and issue dire warnings. The casualty toll could have been much higher had officials not treated this monster storm so seriously.

Irene may not have triggered the apocalypse intimated by television soothsayers, but some of that is luck: a shift a few miles to the west, a tick more ferocity in the winds, and the results might have been far different. As it was, the storm was no picnic. At least 15 people in six states were killed in the storm, and as always the casualties seem heartbreakingly random: an 11-year-old Newport News boy dead when a large tree crashed into his apartment; a 15-year-old girl killed in a North Carolina car crash; a Maryland woman struck fatally when a tree toppled the chimney of her house.

Moreover, all danger hasn’t passed. Additional areas could yet flood and more trees tip over where rivers are running high and the ground is saturated from heavy rains. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) warned that half of the state’s 30 fatalities attributed to Hurricane Isabel in 2003 occurred after the storm, as a result of exposure to electric wires, overexertion or accidents with chain saws.

Irene might have claimed more lives but for intelligent decisions to evacuate residents from low-lying areas, curtail travel and impose curfews. People at all levels of government — from federal emergency officials to governors to police in the smallest municipality — cooperated in formulating and communicating those decisions both before and while the massive storm lumbered up the coast with its furious rain and winds. With few exceptions (the foolish New York City kayakers who had to be rescued come to mind), the public wisely heeded the warnings and stayed off the streets.

Clearly, the storm’s most widespread impact is the loss of electricity. More than 1 million customers in the Washington region were without power Sunday, and restoration efforts in Virginia were said to be second only to those experienced during Isabel in the extent of the challenge. Pepco, as of Sunday morning, reported fewer outages (197,703) than Dominion Power (1.1 million) or BG&E (472,306), but — in light of criticism about its lack of responsiveness and reliability — Pepco has more at stake in showing it has learned from its previous mistakes. Early reviews were encouraging, as the utility reached out to customers before the storm hit, called in extra crews, and answered calls to its hotline promptly and courteously. Customers won’t issue a final grade until the last home gets its lights back on.

Which could be a while: Outages extend up and down the East Coast, and officials are suggesting it could take as long as a week to restore service to everyone. That means people will have to be patient and understanding, which shouldn’t be a problem; those tend to be the traits Americans summon when confronted with a common hardship.

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