By Becca Pizmoht
Central Virginians celebrated the holidays amid spring-like temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s. But the week of unseasonably warm weather ended abruptly with a snowstorm last Monday that brought 10 to 16 inches of wet heavy snow to the region.
The volume of snow snapped trees and branches, sending them across roads and powerlines creating travel headaches and extensive power outages.
Local electricity providers Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Dominion Energy reported more than 300,000 regional customers lost electricity as a result of the storm. A week after the season’s first major storm, most outages had been resolved, but it was a worrisome week for many.
Dubbed winter storm Frida, the fast moving Jan. 3 storm toppled trees and utility lines, paralyzing much of Greene, Madison and Orange counties for the week. The widespread power outages shuttered businesses and prompted localities to open warming shelters at local fire stations.
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Virginia Department of Transportation employees worked around the clock to open main roads by Tuesday but were hampered by the thousands of trees and downed utility lines throughout the nine-county Culpeper district. While both Interstates 64 and 66 were clear, major highways like U.S. Route 15, U.S. 33 and Route 20 were still in fair condition Tuesday morning with patches of ice and slush and secondary roads in the eastern part of Orange County were untouched until Wednesday, just before an additional 2-5 inches of snow fell on the region. Maintenance crews spread brine on area roads to keep them clear.
According to both REC and Dominion Energy, the storm’s impact on the electricity grid was significant.
“The damage that winter storm Frida left was historic in terms of the damage it inflicted on the electric grid,” said Casey Hollins, REC’s Managing Director of Communications and Public Relations.
“We appreciate customers’ patience as our crews work to repair pockets of damage caused by fallen trees and power lines,” said Charlene Whitfield, senior vice-president of power delivery for Dominion Energy Virginia. “The safety of our customers and crews is our number one priority, and we will continue to work around the clock until we have restored service to every customer.”
Patience was in short supply by Thursday, especially among Dominion Energy customers. The Dominion website gave confusing and often contradictory information. Customers checked the outage maps and called the hotline to learn the status of their outage and received no information or incomplete information. Often crews would be dispatched to repair a line and wouldn’t be able to access the problem until trees were cleared from the roadway. Other crews repaired damaged lines only to find further damage. Dominion’s time estimates are based on a formula that takes into account the nature of the storm, the level of damage, the number of crews and trucks in the area and the number of outages. For customers left in the dark the frustration was high.
“Estimates were for our power to be back on Tuesday evening,” said Gordonsville resident Miloh Johnson. “Wednesday morning came and nothing. Later on Wednesday we were teased by it flickering on and off a couple times before it was fully restored.”
REC has enhanced its outage map to more accurately show locations of current outages and has added estimated restoration time when possible. As of Saturday evening, the majority of Dominion and REC customers in the region had their power restored.
“We know this outage is frustrating—nearly a week is a very long time to go without power,” said REC’s Hollins.
Both companies brought in outside crews to help with the magnitude of damage. Workers from throughout the south came to help Dominion and REC deal with the aftermath of Frida.
Wesley Watkins a line worker with Sumpter Utilities in South Carolina was part of a crew working in western Orange County on Friday. Sumpter Utilities sent eight crews and trucks north to help local line workers. Watkins and his coworkers were surprised by the amount of damage.
“We’ve been working since we got here and expect to be here for at least three more days. We can’t work on the lines until the trees are moved and the roads cleared. It’s been slow going. Once you fix one problem, a lot of times you find another.”
Both utility providers encourage customers to be mindful of safety and emphasize that people should not touch or drive over down power lines. For customers using portable generators they caution against refueling a running generator and remind users that generators should not be operated in enclosed areas. Exhaust from generators produces toxic carbon monoxide which can kill people and animals in areas without adequate ventilation.
With prolonged power outages coupled with low temperatures, localities opened warming centers for citizens to find some measure of relief.
Madison County declared a local state of emergency and the Madison County Volunteer Fire Department opened its doors to county residents needing a place to warm up. More than 48% of Madison County had no electricity on Tuesday when temperatures dipped into the teens. Orange County also opened warming centers at the Gordonsville Volunteer Fire Company and at Locust Grove Elementary School.
According to Madison Fire Chief Troy Coppage the process went well.
“Everything has gone smoothly,” he said. “County supervisors acted quickly to declare a state of emergency and we were able to use our space as a warming center run by county social services.”
For the few restaurants and business that remained open on Monday, business was good but customers often had to wait much longer because of staffing woes. For Orange resident Bethany Kilby a quick trip to order pizza for her family became an epic adventure.
“I went out to get a pizza on Monday,” said Kilby. “Pizza Hut was really understaffed and really busy because so many people had no electricity. I waited 45 minutes to get a pizza, way longer than normal.”
Additionally area motels also experienced a bump in business with local residents without power choosing to check in to avoid the cold and out-of-town crews staying locally to assist with repairs to the power grid.
Following a second snow late in the week, area grocery stores were largely bereft of bread and prepared foods as many without power picked shelves clean for meals not requiring electricity to complete.