One Year Later: Parkersburg implementing changes

A storm of historical proportions struck the Mid-Ohio Valley at about 6:30 p.m. June 29, 2012.

The derecho, a storm of intense and destructive wind, did massive damage to the electrical service grid, causing numerous power outages that lasted days and weeks in some cases.

Local officials took additional measures to insure basic services such as water and sewer would not be interrupted.

Emergency planners studied and improve their ability to respond to such a disaster.

Saturday, Sunday and today, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel has taken a look back at the storm and what was learned from it.

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PARKERSBURG – Last year’s super derecho knocked out power and caused damage throughout the region and state, but also helped local governments improve their responses in times of need.

A derecho, a fast moving line of storms, struck the area June 29, 2012, knocking out power to much of the region for more than a week.

Forecasters said unusually hot temperatures added power to the storms, driving them through areas of Ohio and West Virginia with incredible force. The storms later were dubbed as a “super” derecho because of the intensity.

Downed trees blocked roads and damaged buildings throughout the area and gas supplies ran low. Without power, many underground gas tanks were inaccessible, and amid 100-plus degree temperatures communities scrambled to find generators to power water systems.

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said the city’s response came within hours of the first storm, as crews worked to clear debris, respond to emergencies and re-establish communications.

In the aftermath of the storm and cleanup, Newell said the city learned several valuable lessons it has since implemented.

One of the major improvements will happen next month when the city installs an above-ground gas tank for emergency use.

“That was our first mini-crisis, there was no gasoline for our emergency vehicles,” Newell said. “We had to go to Washington County to get fuel.”

The new tank will be emergency-only, and since it is above ground crews will be able to pump the fuel even without power.

“For the most part it will just stay unused, though we do have to cycle the gas out every three months,” Newell said.

The city also has plans to purchase additional generators to keep some key traffic lights working in the event of a prolonged power outage. Newell said there were three accidents during the storm related to traffic lights being out.

“We have 70 intersections in the city we maintain,” he said, and while not all would receive a generator, some with the heaviest traffic could benefit from one. “Most people understand when the lights go off those intersections become four-way stops, but sometimes there are people who are in a hurry or just ignore that. Being able to keep some of those intersections lit may help alleviate some of those kinds of accidents.”

Newell said the city’s utility board also purchased generators to help keep water running throughout the city.

Last year’s storm also forced the city to purchase thousands of dollars worth of equipment to help remove trees, including large chainsaws.

“We bought about $6,000 in chainsaws that Sunday,” he said. “The fire department only had chainsaws big enough to cut vent holes in a roof. They were insufficient when you were trying to clear a whole tree from a road.”

In January the city received a $54,000 FEMA reimbursement for those and other purchases and costs, and Newell said those pieces of equipment are not on emergency vehicles.

“Now we have them and are able to use them if we have a similar situation again,” he said.

Newell said the storm also was the first test of the city and county temporary 911 plan. Officials had to move the 911 center, which was without power after the storm, to the city’s Municipal Building.

“We’d tested it, but we’d never had to use it,” Newell said. “What we learned is what we had in place worked very well. Everybody ran out of that one center. They operated here for a day.”

The city has established a 311 number to allow for non-emergency calls to go directly to the city building. That allows people to gather information, report areas of need such as downed trees or blocked roads, without tying up 911 emergency lines.

“The city building stayed open the whole time,” he said. “We became a cooling station and an information station.”

Fire and police response also was very quick.

“We answered about 100 emergency calls within the first hours after the storm,” Newell said. “Within a very short time we had 25 firefighters out to supplement those who already were on duty.”