F.C. Businesses Paid Huge Price for Derecho’s Damage

Amid all the reports of the devastation caused to residences and public places by the incredible “derecho” storm of June 29 are the impacts on local businesses. For small businesses, like the ones prominent in the City of Falls Church, the effects were devastating, both for their bottom lines and also their employees.

So said Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce in comments to the News-Press Wednesday. The Chamber has posted a survey for its business members to complete on its website, hoping to get a better sense of the actual extent of the harm that derecho inflicted, both in terms of the storm, itself, and the days it took for Dominion Power to restore power and allow the businesses to come back on line.

Cole said that over two dozen businesses responded in the first days after the poll was posted. She said that anecdotal stories were of restaurants, including numerous locally-owned ones, having to dump their entire inventories of perishable foods at the cost of thousands.

The inability of many businesses to reopen for days also cost hourly workers, including waiters and cooks, very significantly. Being in lower income brackets, to begin with, the loss of pay for the hours the businesses were without power held the prospect of severe consequences for them.

This included the many smaller restaurants and retailers in the City’s Eden Center shopping center, dominated by small Asian-American establishments.

A high number of comments on the poll called for power lines to be under grounded, as they are in other parts of the region. The need to underground or upgrade the power lines was evident, one said, “Because the trees didn’t just show up overnight.”

The storm was epic and came swiftly and unexpectedly. While there were reports of possible thunderstorm activity that night, the “derecho” (an Indian-derived word pronounced de-RE-ko to describe a fast-moving wind storm relatively more common in the Midwest and very rare in the East) swept from central Iowa moving at 60 miles per hour, causing millions in damage in its wake, slamming with winds topping 90 miles-per-hour in some places, into this region at full power. According to a report by the National Weather Service, 20 people died from it, including 10 in the wider D.C. region, although none in Falls Church.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields provided an overview of the devastation and the City’s response to the derecho in a guest commentary published exclusively to the News-Press elsewhere in this edition. In it, he noted that the E-911 emergency phone system was out for the City for 60 hours until July 4, and that one of the pumping stations of the City’s owned water system was out for 40 hours before Dominion Power was able to restore its electrical power.

Shortly after the storm hit about 10:15 p.m. EDT Friday, June 29, he reported, dozens of streets in the City were impassible due to downed trees and limbs, and that City crews worked tirelessly to make those streets passible where possible and to maintain operations of critical police, fire and rescue services.

The combination of storm damage, widespread electrical power outages (82 percent of the City remained without power three days after the incident) and excessive heat approaching 100 degrees of higher for a record stint of consecutive days all combined to warrant Shields’ issuance of a declaration of a State of Emergency in the City Saturday morning.

That move, which as by law it had to be, was ratified by the F.C. City Council at its work session this Monday, ordered that “during the existence of the emergency the powers, functions and duties of the Director of Emergency Services and the Emergency Services organization of the City of Falls Church shall be those prescribed by state law and the ordinances, resolutions and approved plans of the City of Falls Church in order to mitigate the effects of said emergency.”

To help citizens in the blazing heat without air conditioning in their homes, the City opening the Community Center as a cooling station, a service taken advantage of by hundreds, and posted a City school bus in front of the Winter Hill Senior Citizens Center so that seniors could board just to cool themselves off. The Sunrise Senior Living facility in the City welcomed any senior to come free of charge to stay until air conditioning could be restored in their homes.

Local swimming pools, like the one at the Winter Hill condominiums, were no help, as without power they could not operate their filtration systems.

Severe criticism by local officials of a poor response from Dominion Power centered on the failure of the Tysons pumping station of the widespread Falls Church Water System, requiring the City after consultations with neighbors to issue a “boil water” advisory to the parts of the system in Fairfax County impacted by the Tysons station.

The City was able to recover the situation with electric generators, and after 40 hours Dominion Power was able to fully restore electrical power there.

In the Chamber of Commerce survey, business owners also faulted Cox and Verizon for their failure to provide communication and Internet services, in some cases not until Thursday of the following week. The News-Press, in fact, was without Internet access in its office and resorted to creative methods of bypassing that problem to get out last week’s edition of the paper on time.