- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2011

Powerful and deadly Hurricane Irene swept through the region early Sunday, downing hundreds of trees and knocking out power, but largely sparing area residents from widespread destruction.

The brunt of the sprawling storm moved into the region after midnight with heavy rain and reported wind gusts of 60 mph.

Though Irene caused less damage than expected, the storm left its mark across the region as it made its way up the East Coast.

A half-million area residents were left without power, many of them in Prince George’s County, which reported 122,500 outages. Southern Maryland also was hit hard, with officials reporting widespread power outages and fallen trees.

“St. Mary’s and Calvert counties were really hit,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who visited a shelter in Baltimore while Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown viewed the damage by helicopter. “A lot of crews are out there trying to get people electricity as soon as possible.”

Residents living downstream of a dam on the swollen St. Mary’s River were forced to evacuate, and St. Mary’s school officials canceled classes for Monday. Classes in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties also have been canceled.

Anne Arundel received about 7 inches of rain and had several homes damaged by trees.

“We’re all healthy, everybody in the community is OK,” said Debbie Martinez, whose house in Annapolis was hit by a tree that crashed into her master bedroom. “Everything can be replaced as far as material things. The main thing is we’re all healthy.”

Irene made landfall Saturday morning at Cape Lookout, N.C., as a Category 1 hurricane, then moved into the mid-Atlantic before being downgraded to a tropical storm and hitting the Northeast on Sunday, killing at least 15 people in its path. Many of the victims were killed by falling trees, including an 85-year-old Maryland woman killed in Queen Anne’s County when a tree knocked a chimney through the glass roof of the sunroom where she was sitting.

“Our No. 1 message … is we are not out of the woods yet,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said Sunday morning as Irene passed through New Jersey and New York City.

“This is not over,” President Obama said late Sunday afternoon from the White House’s Rose Garden.

The big concern now is prolonged power outages and potential flooding from overflowing rivers and streams, though area officials did not expect such problems.

As many as 200 trees were down in the District, according to D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Many of them were in Northwest and fell because of the wind or rain-soaked soil giving way.

Two trees fell outside an apartment building at 39th and Edmunds streets Northwest in Glover Park.

“I don’t think any of us know what to do,” said Abby Taylor, whose apartment sustained minor damage. “I guess we are going to wait to get this taken care of.”

The District received 3 inches of rain, and 33,000 customers were without power. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said at least 13 schools remained without electricity as of Sunday afternoon. Officials later said those schools would not open Monday.

They are Anacostia High School, Beers Elementary, Coolidge High, LaSalle-Backus Educational Center, Orr Elementary, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School (Adams Building), Oyster-Adams Bilingual School (Oyster Building), Savoy Elementary, Stanton Elementary, Thomas Elementary, Turner Elementary at Green, Whittier Educational Center and Winston Educational Center.

Police and emergency crews scrambled in the early aftermath of the storm, clearing roads and directing traffic through 69 malfunctioning traffic lights.

Their efforts were helped by residents who heeded warnings to stay indoors to avoid fallen power lines. Maryland reported as many as 100 road closures, and Montgomery County alone had more than 100 traffic lights out of order.

“It’s been quite a week for the District of Columbia,” Mr. Gray said. “We began with the opening of schools last Monday … and the very next day we had an earthquake. Then, of course, we rolled into the hurricane. There’s a movie in here somewhere.”

In addition, the scheduled dedication ceremony Sunday for the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall was postponed ahead of the storm.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said roughly 1 million utility customers lost power and that four people died in storm-related incidents across the state.

He said Irene resulted in the second-highest number of power outages in state history, compared with roughly 2 million as a result of Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

“Power outages are probably the most significant affect of this storm,” said Mr. McDonnell, a Republican. In Richmond alone, 75 percent of city residents were without power, he added.

As much as a foot of rain fell in the Hampton Roads area.

The storm passed east of Ocean City, Md., at about 2 a.m., damaging the end of the fishing-amusement pier and the light tower at the tip of the inlet. However, resort officials reported no major damage or serious injuries.

Butch Arbin, captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, said his lifeguards were trained for helicopter rescues had flooding forced residents onto rooftops and that the state police sent its dive team to the resort.

“But we were spared,” he said. “The dunes were in good shape before the storm, and the town made good decisions.”

By noon Sunday, the mandatory evacuation had been lifted, the sun was shining and surfers were paddling into glassy, head-high waves.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan defended his decision to evacuate the resort during the peak tourist season.

“You have to err on the side of public safety,” he said. “These were hard decisions but the right decisions.”

The usual flooding that occurs in Annapolis and Alexandria’s Old Town never materialized. Businesses in Old Town, near the Potomac River, were open by Sunday morning.

In Annapolis, shop owners piled sandbags against their doors, anticipating a scene like the one in 2003 when Isabel flooded the downtown with more than 2 feet of water. However, the sandbags remained relatively dry Sunday morning as residents and store owners expressed relief that Irene had spared them.

“God looked after us,” said Sveinn Storm, owner of Storm Brothers Ice Cream Factory, which was left 4 feet under water during Isabel.

Roughly 2.3 million people on the East Coast were evacuated, including 315,000 in Maryland, 200,000 in Virginia and 370,000 in New York.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg lifted the evacuation order Sunday but the city’s subway system, which is responsible for shuttling thousands of commuters and tourists, remained closed. New York state and transit officials said Sunday evening that subway service would generally restart, with some closures continuing, at 6 a.m. Monday.

Mr. Obama declared a state of emergency for the District and essentially all of the states hit by the storm, including Maryland and Virginia. The declaration makes federal aid available and authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

The storm at its height spanned 500 miles, from the Carolinas to Cape Cod, with wind gusts of 115 mph.

Metrorail and bus service was running Sunday with no major delays. Flights out of the region’s three major airports — Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International — resumed Sunday, but numerous cancellations were reported.

A spokeswoman for Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said Dulles and Reagan stayed open throughout the storm but that most major airlines had “wrapped up operations” by midday Saturday. However, Dulles handled flights throughout the night.

Amtrak essentially suspended all East Coast service from Florida to New England. In a statement Sunday night, Amtrak said many routes south of Philadelphia will restart, while many New York-based routes, both to Florida and New England, will not.

In Northern Virginia, residents of the Beverly Hills neighborhood in Alexandria on Sunday were dealing with power outages and tree damage as early as 3:30 a.m.

Tim Oliver, of Quality Tree Care, in Springfield, was orchestrating his crew of tree cutters as they negotiated an 80-foot-tall White Oak tree that had fallen and was caught by a neighboring tree.

“We’ve gotten a whole bunch of calls,” he said. “Most of it is limbs and stuff that are blocking driveways.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.