- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

The remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto swept into the region yesterday, and its heavy rain and powerful wind caused serious crashes, widespread power outages and mandatory evacuations.

The storm was in part responsible for at least five deaths — four in Virginia and one in North Carolina — after making landfall before midnight Thursday near Cape Fear, N.C., then churning up the East Coast.

In Silver Spring, 11 middle-school students were injured about 7:10 a.m. after a van skidded out of control and hit them at a bus stop. Preliminary investigations suggest the inclement weather might have been a factor.

The storm briefly reached hurricane status with sustained winds of 74 mph as it passed Haiti. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and then to a tropical depression when it swiped South Florida. The storm regained strength after reaching the Atlantic Ocean and churning up the coast as a strong tropical storm.

The National Weather Service downgraded the storm again to a tropical depression at about 10:30 a.m., as it moved closer to the region. Still, Ernesto’s remnants were expected to drop 3 to 6 inches of rain on the region before continuing north and out of the area by midday.

The storm also downed trees, flooded roads, pounded resort beaches and caused widespread traffic accidents from the Carolinas, through Virginia and into the District and Maryland.

North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley declared a state of emergency on Thursday, but said yesterday morning that the state seemed to have dodged major damage. “We don’t project a lot of major flooding,” he said.

A motorist in his state was killed about 8:15 a.m. when his vehicle sideswiped another car on Interstate 95 in Nash County. State police said high speed and a wet road were contributing factors. The victim’s name was not released.

As many as 85,000 residents were without power at the height of the storm.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine also declared a state of emergency, which allows him to deploy National Guard troops if needed.

Most of the state’s major problems were in southeastern and central Virginia. The state’s Department of Transportation reported nearly 50 road closures.

Virginia State Police handled about 550 traffic crashes from midnight Thursday to 5:30 p.m. yesterday, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

Two fatalities were reported, one near Colonial Heights, in the central region, on Interstate 95 and the other in Suffolk on Route 58, authorities said.

In Gloucester County, a husband and wife were killed when a large tree fell onto their modular home.

In Newport News, power was knocked out at Mary Immaculate Hospital. Officials said the emergency backup system also failed about noon. The 115-bed hospital transferred three patients to other hospitals. Staffers used manual ventilators on patients who need help breathing. Power was restored last night.

At the height of the storm, nearly 291,000 power outages were reported in Virginia, mostly in the southeastern region.

Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder declared a local state of emergency, ordering a mandatory evacuation of nearly 250 homes and apartment complexes in the Battery Park area, because of flooding.

“We do not want to waste a moment in protecting the health and well-being of our citizens,” Mr. Wilder said.

In Northern Virginia, a tree fell onto Metro’s Orange Line tracks, which caused delays while trains ran on a single track between the East Falls Church and Vienna stations.

Metro called in extra personnel Thursday to monitor conditions, but reported no other significant problems with rail service.

The agency placed hundreds of sandbags in low-lying areas, vent shafts and grates near several stations. It also had 12 tons of sand ready for use.

The agency brought in extra sump pumps for use between the Braddock Road and Pentagon Metrorail stations on the Blue and Yellow lines.

Residents in the Huntington area in Fairfax County, still recovering from storms in late June that left nearly 160 homes uninhabitable or condemned when Cameron Run swelled as much as 14 feet in some areas, braced for more damaging weather.

Bev Watson, 59, of Arlington Terrace, said she was still waiting on a county loan to fix $20,000 worth of damage from the June flooding.

“I’ll be honest, I have nightmares,” Ms. Watson said. “I wake up at night, and I see that water.”

Fairfax County officials and the Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at Edison High School in the Franconia area as a precaution to rising waters in Cameron Run.

County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said yesterday afternoon county officials were watching Cameron Run and other waterways closely. Cameron Run is most susceptible to flooding at high tides, which was expected at 3 a.m. today.

In Old Town Alexandria, a flood-prone area next to the Potomac River, residents and merchants lined their doors with sandbags as floodwater edged toward storefronts.

More than 4,500 sandbags had been distributed, said city spokesman Brian Hannigan. “We think we’ve done all we can,” he said.

Diana Bridger, an employee at the Christmas Attic on Union Street, said floodwaters from Tropical Storm Isabel three years ago poured through the windows, leaving 4 feet of water in the first floor of the shop. “Ever since then, we all kind of flinch,” she said.

By 10 p.m., water was ankle deep on the streets closest to the Potomac, WTTG TV (Channel 5) reported.

City officials expected water levels to rise up to 21/2 feet above normal during high tide early this morning.

In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday morning that he had decided against declaring a state of emergency.

“Four to 6 to 8 inches is not for us at this point a major problem” because the state is so dry, Mr. Ehrlich said at a press conference.

Later in the day, St. Mary’s County officials declared a local state of emergency that resulted in a mandatory evacuation. Leonardtown High School was opened as a storm shelter.

David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said additional personnel were on standby.

No major flooding on roads was reported, but minor traffic accidents in the state and across the region — combined with the heavy rain, 45 mph winds and recent dry conditions — made driving slow and dangerous.

“When there hasn’t been rain for as long as [we] went, when it does happen, all of the oil and dirt that has built up comes to the road’s surface, which make conditions extra slippery,” he said.

Sustained winds of up to 49 mph forced transportation officials to put restrictions on the many bridges, including the Bay Bridge.

Montgomery County fire department officials yesterday afternoon reported handling about 300 calls, about the same number they handle in a typical 24-hour period.

Most of the calls were for downed power lines, but injuries reported included two pedestrians who were hit by a car in Wheaton.

Eight school districts in Maryland — including those in Calvert, Charles and Frederick Counties — closed at least one hour early and canceled after-school activities.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who declared a state of emergency Thursday, urged residents to check on neighbors, particularly the elderly and disabled, and to use mass transit if possible for their travels.

City officials opened their Emergency Operations Center and distributed sandbags to residents in low-lying areas.

The U.S. Park Police, the Metropolitan Police Department and the District Department of Transportation monitored intersections for power outages that would cause traffic signals to malfunction. No major problems were reported.

At the height of the storm, nearly 32,000 Potomac Electric Power Co. customers were without power. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. had more than 51,000 outages, mostly in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

Reporters Gary Emerling, Seth McLaughlin and Jon Ward, and wire services contributed to this report.

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