The past several weeks have presented the City of Falls Church with a test of our emergency response capabilities and community resilience. On June 29, 2012, the City of Falls Church and much of the Commonwealth of Virginia experienced high winds (clocked locally at over 80 mph) and heavy rain from a fast moving storm referred to by meteorologists as a “derecho.” As everyone experienced, we had hundreds of trees and branches blown into streets, power lines, and private property. By 11 p.m. Friday night, dozens of City streets were impassable and we had near total failure of the electric power grid and telecommunications services, including E-911 services.
The immediate priority for City response on Friday night was protecting against loss of life and property by maintaining operations at critical facilities, such as fire and police stations and water pumping stations, and clearing roads so that no houses were isolated from fire, EMS, or police response. City public works staff worked through Friday night to open streets, except where downed trees were involved with power lines. Signals at key intersections were powered up with generators, or marked with temporary stop signs. City police and fire personnel cordoned off those areas where power lines were down in the street. Generators were deployed to water pump stations, and utility staff was deployed to visually monitor tank levels and pump generator operations.
On Saturday morning our response expanded to include debris removal and standing up a cooling center at the Community Center for the public. E-911 services remained down and widespread power outages remained through Wednesday, July 4. On Saturday morning, we stood up the City Emergency Operations Center to support field operations and declared a Local State of Emergency, which was formalized by the City Council on July 9. With the climbing temperatures through the week we deployed a school bus to the Winter Hill Senior Center, to serve as a mobile cooling center for the residents there.
As the power outages continued at our water pump stations, the water level dropped at the Tysons tank on Saturday afternoon, resulting in insufficient water pressure in the westernmost portion of our service territory. In consultation with the Virginia Department of Health, Town of Vienna, and Fairfax County Health Department, the City took the precautionary step of issuing a boil water advisory to our customers in the Tysons and Vienna area. Back up electric generators restored water pressure by Saturday night, and we lifted the advisory on Monday, after bacteriological tests confirmed that the water was safe to drink throughout the event.
We were fortunate to have no fatalities in the City directly caused by the storm; however ten fatalities in northern Virginia region were attributed to the storm. Homes and businesses across the City experienced extensive property damage, including four homes that were declared unsafe for habitation after inspection by the City Building Official.
To assist homeowners with cleanup, the City waived brush and excess trash fees through Wednesday July 11. Debris removal efforts are ongoing, with approximately 300 tons of storm damage removed from City streets as of Tuesday July 10. Removal of hazardous trees from our City parks will likely take many weeks of steady labor.
The City Office of Communication worked around the clock to keep the community informed, issuing over 300 public messages between Friday and Thursday via Twitter, Facebook, Falls Church Alerts, and old fashioned press releases. The hundreds of people who came to Community Center to cool off were also there recharge their electronic communication devices so they could stay in touch and informed. Free wi-fi service at the Community Center is on our list of follow-up improvements after this storm.
City officials met with Dominion to express concern about prolonged outages at our critical facilities, particularly water pump stations (40 hours for full restoration) and E-911 dispatch center (60 hours), and the impact the long term outages had on City business and residents. We have scheduled a follow up meeting with Dominion in July to pursue these issues further, and will work with the regional Council of Governments to better understand E-911 and telecommunications outages in the Verizon system with the goal of improving performance in the future.
During the storm last week, and the Hillwood Avenue incident the week prior, we saw neighbors checking on each other, working together, and sharing information. It was valuable that the Farmers Market went on as normal on Saturday morning and the Fourth of July Celebrations on Wednesday were particularly meaningful for people this year. Those public events as well as the Summer Concert Series on Thursday night were all opportunities for people to come together, share useful information (and stories), offer help, and just enjoy themselves.
City staff worked very hard to maintain public safety, clear debris, maintain critical water and sewer services, and keep the community informed throughout the event, and I am grateful for their dedication and effort. We have much work still to do. Before things return to fully back to normal, City staff always sit down to assess our response during an event, note what went well and where we need to improve, so that we can apply the lessons learned to the next emergency. Public feedback is very important to that assessment, and I encourage you to contact me directly with your comments, observations, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wyatt Shields is the City Manager of the City of Falls Church.