Tropical Storm Isabel taught Prince William County officials that water systems are fragile and that it was a little harder than they thought to disseminate emergency information.
Pat Collins, emergency services coordinator for the county, said emergency preparedness exercises in past years had trained staff well to respond to Isabel.
But since Prince William County didn’t get as hard hit as other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, news outlets weren’t as receptive to communicate information to the county’s residents, he said.
“The communications we intend for citizens may not reach them,” Collins said. “Just because we send a press release out doesn’t mean the they’ll pick it up.”
Supervisor Mary Hill, R-Coles, said that she’s heard criticism over the county’s decision to close the operations early Sept. 18, hours before Isabel hit the area that evening.
“Those decisions were not made in a vacuum or by any one entity,” said Hill. “The region cooperated as a whole and all of our top executives and other staff members were involved in making that decision and I think they did a remarkable job.”
A Regional Information Coordination System was created after Sept. 11, 2001, and includes jurisdictions from across Northern Virginia.
Hill commended the work of that group and that of Prince William County’s executive, Craig Gerhart, who staved off sleep to maintain hourly updates to supervisors.
He, among other county employees including Collins, were awake for 30 or more hours before, during and after the storm’s strongest hours.
It took 16 days for Dominion Virginia Power to restore power to the 1.8 million Virginia customers who lost power during Isabel, said Debra Johnson, external affairs manager for the power company.
She said that in Prince William 65 power line poles were broken, 181 wires were downed and 83 cross arms were broken, with the western half of the county bearing the brunt of utility damages.
“We’re so used to having everything at our fingertips and in a storm of this magnitude it’s very difficult and you have to set priorities,” said Hill.
Dominion’s priorities for restoring power started with hospitals, then water pumping stations and schools, according to Marty O’Baker, director of operations for Dominion.
He said that out-of-state crews that were contracted to help clean up after the storm used communication systems different than those used by Dominion.
That posed a problem, he said, but certain crews with the same communication systems were assigned specific jobs.
“We will go back and look at this storm many times over to see what communications we can improve,” said O’Baker.
Collins said he ordered water for 17,000 people around noon on Sept. 19, just after he heard that Virginia American Water Company, which serves Dale City, reported it was going to lose pressure.
The company issued a boil water alert and water was restored there a few hours later, said Collins.
Eighty-one people picked up water at distribution points, he added.
The county’s emergency operations center began forming early that week to determine how the storm would hit Prince William, and issued warnings to residents.
Officials advised residents to prepare for the storm and Collins said “most of the citizens were prepared to take care of themselves.”
To prepare the county for another disaster, Collins said it would need more generators for the emergency operations center, which operated at the county administration building through the weekend of Sept. 21.
He also said he learned something about the people who work for the county — they’re “willing to do anything,” he said.
During a presentation Tuesday to the county supervisors, Collins showed pictures of waves crashing into beach-front homes in Nags Head, N.C. and of people rowing in canoes past a coffee shop.
He noted that Prince William County didn’t get hit as hard as surrounding areas.
“We were lucky,” he said. “We were extremely lucky.”