Bedford County Emergency Management Agency director Scott Johnson was in Virginia over the weekend to visit his son and to attend a 10-year reunion for a terrorism task force on which he served while in the military. But when power outages hit the East Coast, the trip gave him the opportunity to view another community's emergency first-hand.
"A massive front moved through and knocked down trees across a several county/state area within a short period of time on Friday," wrote Johnson in an e-mail to the Times-Gazette. "What happens when not just a circuit or two go out, but large areas of the power grid? The heat was oppressive and [air conditioning], of course, did not work for the next three days I was there. We walked up eight flights of stairs to get to and from our non-air conditioned hotel room.
"Most gas stations did not operate...no electricity to work the pumps. Some food stores had generators that ran their cash registers and a few lights only, but debit cards did not work. Cash was king if you wanted to buy bottled water, gas, etc. Credit cards (not debit) did work at some locations. Cell phone networks operated but were shut down by officials for emergency E911 calls only for the first day. Land line phones mostly still worked. However, the best way to get info was on an AM/FM radio since most stations apparently had generator backup power."
From North Carolina to New Jersey, nearly 1.8 million people were still without electricity Monday evening, nearly three full days after a severe summer storm lashed the East Coast. Utilities warned that many neighborhoods could remain in the dark for much of the week, if not beyond.
Friday's storm arrived with little warning and knocked out power to 3 million homes and businesses, so utility companies have had to wait days for extra crews traveling from as far away as Quebec and Oklahoma. And the toppled trees and power lines often entangled broken equipment in debris that must be removed before workers can even get started.
Adding to the urgency of the repairs are the sick and elderly, who are especially vulnerable without air conditioning in the sweltering triple-digit heat. Many sought refuge in hotels or basements.
Officials feared the death toll, already at 22, could climb because of the heat and widespread use of generators, which emit fumes that can be dangerous in enclosed spaces.
Johnson said that Bedford County residents can learn from the outage.
"As we move through this oppressive summer heat and even into the winter with the threat of ice storms, folks should be prepared to be on their own for 2-3 days," he wrote. "Although the water systems seemed to work in most places in the D.C. area, keep enough water and dry food goods stored for folks in the household and pets for at least three days. Especially if traveling, have a few hundred dollars in cash on you. Keep your vehicles with at least half a tank of gas in them, especially if traveling."
Johnson recommends carrying a flashlight which uses LED bulbs, which don't use up batteries as quickly as conventional bulbs, and are often brighter to boot. A portable battery-operated AM/FM radio can keep citizens informed about the situation. A dozen or so spare batteries should be kept on hand.
Those on oxygen machines need to keep backup bottles on hand in case of an extended power outage.
"Disasters like the power outage described can happen on very short notice," wrote Johnson. "Preparing now will keep you and your family safe and save you a lot of grief and aggravation when it happens. Don't expect the government to take care of you. Although they will do everything they can to help, public services will be very quickly overwhelmed with calls for assistance. Be prepared to take care of yourself and your family."