By Mannix Porterfield
Until the mighty winds churned, you probably could have counted on one hand the number of West Virginians familiar with the term “derecho.”
On a muggy June 29 evening, right before sunset, it came with only scant warning.
For anyone living in a cave and still not up on the term, this is one dictionary’s definition of a derecho:
“A line of intense, widespread and fast-moving windstorms and sometimes thunderstorms that moves across a great distance and is characterized by damaging straight-line winds.”
By all accounts, the storm that rattled every nook and cranny of West Virginia that otherwise uneventful June evening carried all the traits of that definition.
Trees toppled across power lines and blocked highways. Thousands were hurled into darkness, and the Beckley area took on the appearances of an Old West ghost town after a gold rush played out.
Restaurants were closed. Without power, motorists couldn’t pump gas at convenience stores. Motels were forced to shut down.
What few grocery stores prepared for power outages with emergency generators were besieged by so many frantic customers they soon found shelves and coolers depleted.
Travelers on the West Virginia Turnpike were shocked after pulling off the Beckley exit to find no place to buy a meal or room at the inns.
At its height, the sudden storm disrupted power to some 680,000 households in West Virginia, and restoration was a long, arduous task, given the thousands of trees that had to be chopped up or cleared from roadways so crews could reach the lines. Insurance adjusters scrambled to deal with multiple damage claims.
As in any crisis, the good, bad and ugly emerged.
On the good side, volunteers pitched in to deliver foodstuffs and medicines such as insulin for diabetics to those stranded in rural pockets, or who simply lacked gasoline to get about.
On the bad side, tempers grew rapidly short and motorists jockeying for gasoline at crowded stations or trying to get a rapidly diminishing inventory of ice yielded to cursing, threats and even fisticuffs.
On the ugly side, criminals exploited the helplessness of many to commit crimes, such as the theft of 39 generators from households or private companies. And this crime spree delayed efforts to restore power and utilities, including vital lines of communication.
Echoing the sentiments of many after arrests were made, State Police Superintendent C.R. “Jay” Smithers said, “These people valued the desires of self over the critical needs of others.”
Once all the added costs of the storm were figured, Appalachian Power Co. said the storm cost it an estimated $56 million in West Virginia alone.
In the aftermath, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., suggested the crippling storm was an eye-opener to a potentially more serious matter — the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid.
“I believe this storm has far greater implications than just being one for the record books,” Rahall reflected.
“The magnitude of this disaster, and subsequent storms, raise concerns about the vulnerabilities of our electrical grid and our ability to rapidly respond to similar crises.”
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