It’s entirely possible that living closer to nature every day – a law that no one in Rappahannock County will ever need to see in writing – makes it easier to know what to do on those nights when nature gets ornery.
Though surely neighbors came to the aid of neighbors throughout the huge swath of mid-Atlantic infrastructure that had its plug pulled Friday, the stories of what happened in Rappahannock County during and after the storm seem to indicate that it’s true. Coping is one of this county’s top local industries.
Examples were not hard to come by, though names were – again, a native characteristic here amid the folds of the Blue Ridge, where good-deed-doers often go unidentified, and like it that way. We’ll get to those in a moment.
The official news, first, is that no one was seriously injured in the county during or after the storm, according to Sheriff Connie C. Smith (at least none were known as of Tuesday afternoon, when this edition had to go to press because of the Independence Day holiday; watch rappnews.com for updates and to see more photos). No homes or structures burned down, although nearby one that was destroyed by what is thought to be a surge-related fire – just over the line in Culpeper County – kept the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue squad busy until late Friday.
As the storm approached after 9 p.m. Friday, Sheriff Smith was in fact at the Amissville company’s annual carnival, as were deputies Lee Setttle, Chad Abate, Gary Jenkins and chief deputy John Arstino. When a severe-weather alert reached her crew, they didn’t have to work hard to get the carnival ride operators to shut down, and only somewhat harder to get most of the stragglers who hadn’t headed home yet into their cars and out of danger.
“Then it just started blowing,” Smith said. “Trash cans started flying past us.”
To clear the roads, Smith’s crew split up and headed out across the county, she said, along with additional staff, including deputy Cody Dodson and Lt. Janie Phillips – who’d just returned from a vacation and drove in to help dispatcher Janice Hatcher with a suddenly huge number of calls – and off-duty deputy Kerry Grigsby, who hooked up with Greg Williams and his tree service equipment, and wound up helping county resident Heather Appleton and her husband Mike get home that night.
Appleton said it made her glad she and Mike live in Rappahannock – but it wasn’t the first time she’d experienced the county’s volunteer spirit.
“When I was a little girl, my grandparents Bill and Frances Lyne were driving down Ben Venue Road and a tree fell on top of our car,” she said. “A car pulled up behind us and drove my grandmother and I to the hospital, and then a truck pulled up and helped my grandfather remove the tree. Rappahannock County is blessed with wonderful, neighborly people.”
Sperryville resident Monica Worth was at the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill during the storm, and left, along with everyone, when the power failed. What she saw on the drive south and west, she said, took her breath away.
“Trees everywhere, power lines hanging,” she said. When she found she couldn’t get home, she headed again north, hoping to fill an almost-empty gas tank, which took her toward Front Royal. “More destruction,” she said – but also, by this time, there were crews of volunteers everywhere – sheriff’s office personnel, fire and rescue volunteers and just plain volunteers – with chainsaws and heavy equipment, clearing trees, limbs and debris from the roads.
“There was a big effort last night on the part of all the volunteer fire and rescue departments in this county,” county emergency services coordinator Richie Burke said on Saturday, noting that much of the early clearing – between about 10 p.m. and midnight Friday night – was the work of volunteers from local fire and rescue companies from Sperryville, Castleton, Amissville, Washington, Flint Hill and Chester Gap and the sheriff’s deputies.
“You gotta get the roads open,” said Burke. “If you have emergency calls, you have to be able to get there.”
At the Castleton Festival (see Rob Taylor’s separate report on that), the annual music festival’s organizers entertained some 400 who got to see half of “The Barber of Seville” before the power failed – and then saw many of them safely back to a U.S. highway, with logistics manager (and Castleton fire chief) Terry Robey marshalling a tractor and a mobile clearing crew that many concert-goers followed, as they cleared a path through fallen trees and limbs.
Sheriff Smith, with stepson Jesse Smith and the Sperryville fire company’s Freddy Thompson and Chuck and Johnny Jenkins, wound up on U.S. 522 south of Sperryville, clearing the road until about 3 a.m.
“By the time we got to Boston,” she said, “I bet we removed 50 trees.”
What the volunteers missed – and they missed primarily, and on purpose, debris that was tied up in high-voltage ribbons – VDOT, with help from Rappahannock Electric Cooperative crews who began arriving during the night, had largely cleared by Saturday morning.
What remained out, of course, was electricity. People will be telling stories about this storm – and its nearly 100-degree, 18th-century aftermath – for some time.
When Worth finally got down to Ashby Lane, off Route 231, at close to 11 Friday night, a neighbor had cleared most of the road of huge trees and tree parts. She called the newspaper office at 11:30 that night because she had been so moved – by the destruction, yes, but by the number and volume of kindnesses she witnessed between Front Royal and F.T. Valley.
When manager John Gruber at Flint Hill Public House realized over the weekend that the restaurant hardly ever used all of its ice by the end of an evening’s business, he put out the word that anyone who needed ice – and on Sunday there were still close to 2,000 REC customers without power – could come by from 8:30 to 9 p.m. and take what they wanted.
Many who still had no power on Tuesday had found temporary respite in the air-conditioned showers, if not spare rooms, of family and friends.
What would be hard to forget, however, were the first moments of Friday night’s storm, which some of us ignored until that became impossible, and others followed on satellite radar, eyes wide at its sheer, monolithic size, stretching from Pennsylvania almost to North Carolina, until the power and internet blinked off.
Kerrie Mullany said she and her family – except her 15-year-old son, Sam, who she’d “foolishly” allowed to head up to the Amissville carnival earlier in the afternoon – huddled in the center of their house, on the side of a oak-dotted ridge looking west not far from Massies Corner, as the initial winds barrelled up that ridge and shook the house.
The wind uprooted at least three 80- to 100-year-old oaks on that ridge, dumping one of them against the house, Mullany said. “It sounded like bombs going off as they landed,” she said. After realizing the house had survived with astonishingly minimal damage, and after Sam had been located and brought home by friends, she said, “we all kept saying, ‘Thank God we’re okay, and the house didn’t get damaged,’ but . . .” She sighed. “I’d almost trade in a smashed roof to have one of those trees back. They’ve been part of our life, those trees, and I didn’t realize how much they contributed to our lives.”
Mullany, whose artist husband Tom has painted those trees many times (you can see them in a panel over the cash register the next time you visit Ballard’s in Washington), said she’s convinced herself that the initial blast coming up that ridge might have been powerful enough to lift the house off its foundation – and that “maybe this tree helped to hold our house down.”
This reporter opened the door to his screen porch at the moment the first blast of wind arrived at about 9:30 p.m. Friday, and found it almost yanked out of his hand by an incoming gust. What he will not soon forget is that, a moment later, the door was sucked closed, almost catching his head, with equal force – and at that moment, there was a chorus of twisting, snapping, collapsing and falling coming from all directions.
Microburst, the meteorologists call it.
Reminder, others call it.