Big Storm punches base
July 6, 2012
By Jim Dresbach
A line of severe thunderstorms with embedded hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and vivid lightning dealt a powerful blow to Northern Virginia and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall the evening of June 29. In its aftermath, electrical power for JMB-HH headquarters, office buildings, barracks and businesses was knocked out of commission on June 29. Many services, including the shoppette, the Fort Myer Commissary, the Marine Corps exchange and base swimming pools remained closed during the days leading up to Independence Day.
The storm, which originated in northern Illinois and caused damage throughout Ohio and West Virginia, rolled through Arlington County around 10:15 on the evening of June 29. By sunrise of June 30, base Soldiers and civilians had begun improvising and adapting to life without modern conveniences, and base personnel handled the storm's punch with some maneuvers of their own. Less than 12 hours after the storm, Department of Public Works employees and Old Guard Soldiers were using brooms, shovels, chain saws and muscled arms to clear storm debris.
By mid-morning, members of the 3d U.S. Infantry were pouring out of their headquarters with brooms, rakes and shovels to enlist in clean-up efforts while part of the DPW team removed medium-sized branches from along the Lee Avenue residential corridor.
"There is no power in the barracks," one Old Guard Soldier said Saturday morning while he led a part of the clean-up on Jackson Avenue near the post office. "What we did first was square away the barracks then we got on the streets to help with the clean-up."
Just before the lunch hour on Saturday, a generator was delivered to the consolidated dining facility to save boxes of frozen goods and perishables, and nearly 15 hours after the storm, non-generator power was being filtered into the joint base.
Additional discomfort was added to those suffering through 100-degree temperatures and the lack of air conditioning when base and county residents learned JBM-HH swimming pool operating hours were to be briefly interrupted. Electrical power was restored at the Fort Myer Officers Club at 2 p.m. on Saturday, and the pool complex opened at 4 p.m.
Before the reopening, Fort Myer Officers Club swimming pool lifeguards worked together to clear strainers and remove leaves, twigs and outdoor furniture -- including lifeguard towers and portable basketball hoops -- from the pools.
"After power was restored, we still did some cleaning," said pool manager Andrea Vasekova. "Sunday was super busy since many people came to the pools."
Closed the day after the storm due to the lack of electricity, Zembiac Pool was open again July 2 and the Henderson Hall side of the joint base was "open with limited services" 36 hours after the squall line passed through the area.
Also, the Marine Corps exchange, which closed July 1 due to excessive hot temperatures, was reopened July 2.
"It's cool in there right now; the issue [Sunday] was that the temperature became uncomfortable, and the exchange closed due to the lack of cooling. Monday the exchange is open with limited registers," Doriann Geller, MCCS Henderson Hall marketing officer, said on the morning of July 2.
The Fort Myer commissary regained power at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and reopened at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, but some technological issues made opening store doors a bit problematic.
"We pretty much were here all night [Saturday night/Sunday morning]," commissary director Nancy Mitchell said Monday morning as her team tackled the challenge of a quick reopening turn-around. "We still have some issues. Our prices changed at the beginning of the month. The pricing is right in the computers, but we haven't been able to print new signs for the shelves."
The Friday night storm did leave its signature straight-line wind damage. The two-story high video screen utilized as an audio-visual companion to the Twilight Tattoos held on Summerall Field was toppled and damaged by the high winds.
Even while electricity was re-supplied to JBM-HH, air conditioning service was also interrupted in highly-used buildings throughout the base.
"There were four buildings [Monday] morning which didn't have air conditioning -- Town Hall, Conmy Hall, Spates [Community Center] and Building 59 [JBM-HH headquarters]," said Installation Operations Center Operations Specialist Rodney Smith.
By mid-day, bldg. 59 and Conmy air flow was back to normal.
Following the restoration of power and the removal of downed branches, JBM-HH Commander Col. Carl R. Coffman praised DPW's efforts in getting the base quickly on its feet.
"Our DPW guys, whether they are technicians or roads and grounds guys, are world class," Coffman said. "They continue to execute; they understand what the mission is. All you have to do is give them a little intent and then stay out of their way. We've learned a lot over the last three years with snow events and storm events like this. We muster up. The DPW guys have been at this for a long time. They know what to do."
In neighboring Arlington National Cemetery, the storm did significant harm to trees, limbs and branches comparable to damage sustained during Tropical Storm Irene which barreled through the District of Columbia area in August 2011. Among the trees lost were a number of witness trees which stood during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
"Arlington lost three of its oldest trees in the cemetery -- two white oaks in Section 1 and a red oak in Section 27," the ANC statement explained. "It is estimated that these trees were between 225 to 240 years old. In total, Arlington National Cemetery lost eight large trees in Sections 1, 3, 12, 13, 27, and 36. There are 17 additional trees that are damaged to the point they will need to be removed."
Other ANC damage included a small number of broken headstones that were damaged from falling trees or branches.