Blown away: Surprise storms leave damage, power outages in their wake

July 10, 2012

BY SUSIE CURRIE — Until last month, many of us had never heard the words “microburst” or “derecho.”

Tree damage 1 derecho 2012

During the surprise derecho that hit June 29, 2012, branches rained down all over the city, smashing car windows, closing playgrounds and blocking sidewalks.

But that was before two storms a week apart felled trees, ripped off roofs, rained hail and cut the power to millions of homes and businesses in nine states.

On Friday, June 22, a microburst hit the area, bringing horizontal rain, debilitating winds, and “hail the size of golf balls,” according to lifelong Hyattsville resident Richard Klank, who found some of the frozen spheres on his property.

Throughout the city, several branches littered the ground while others dangled dangerously above parked cars like so many swords of Damocles. Still, Hyattsville was lucky compared to the neighboring towns of Bladensburg and Riverdale Park, where damage to apartment buildings displaced many residents.

Cleanup from that storm was still in progress when a much bigger one hit on June 29, causing widespread, hurricane-like destruction. At Top of the Park apartments, pieces of the roof ended up on the grass, in the power line, against two trucks parked on 41st Avenue, and in a tree on Farragut Street. Along Hamilton Street, fallen trees smashed at least two cars on opposite sides of the street.

That night, more than a million people in the Washington area alone lost electricity, and some wouldn’t get it back for more than a week.

The storm, we learned later, was a derecho. But if you lived in one of the hundreds of Hyattsville households plunged into darkness, you didn’t much care what it was called. Especially since you were on Day 2 of what would turn out to be a record-setting streak of days with temperatures of 95 degrees or higher (11, at last count).

The surprise derecho that hit June 29, 2012, caused branches to fall throughout the city. Here, fallen limbs surround an empty seesaw at Hamilton Park playground, closed due to storm damage.

Fallen limbs surround an empty seesaw at Hamilton Park playground, closed due to storm damage.

Outages seemed to be concentrated south of Hamilton Street, west of Queens Chapel Road, and east of 43rd Avenue. Queens Chapel Town Center was dark, as were businesses along Route 1. (A block away, the Hyattsville Post Office on Gallatin Street was open with no electricity, good news if you wanted to buy stamps or check your mailbox.)

Most of the Mall at Prince Georges was open, and lines snaked around the food court as heat-stricken hungry locals sought out sustenance (not to mention outlets for their many chargers). Meanwhile, nearby box stores Marshall’s and Ross were closed.

Target found a middle ground, operating with minimal electricity. With only the street entrance open and about a quarter of the fluorescent lights on, the store was selling everything except its frozen food. Cashiers and credit-card machines were working; the checkout conveyor belts weren’t.

Meanwhile, lights being out at virtually all city intersections led to police simply blocking off streets, so that traffic could continue to move safely in two directions if not four. On the Capital Beltway, some motorists had to navigate around trees in traffic lanes and exit ramps.

One of them was local resident Brian Carl, who had donned a wool tuxedo to serve as best man at a 1 p.m. wedding in Silver Spring. A two-hour ceremony. With no electricity either at the church or the reception hall.

“When I got home, I weighed myself and I had lost 10 pounds,” he said.

Councilmember Eric Wingard was one of the few people able to purchase a generator that Saturday. Arriving at the Bowie Home Depot at 6:15 a.m., shortly after it opened, he got one of the last three.

Elsewhere in Hyattsville, Northwestern High School was turned into a cooling center, with the Red Cross offering water, juice, and maybe most importantly, a refuge from the scorching heat. The Hyattsville library, which normally closes at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, was one of five in the county to stay open until 8 as a cooling center. Across the street, Prince George’s Plaza Community Center was one of 13 to stay open until 10 p.m.

Then many people had to go home to face a second sweltering evening. One New Jersey couple, in town for a family milestone celebration on Sunday, found that their College Park hotel had no electricity. They considered themselves lucky to find a room at the Holiday Inn Express in Northeast Washington.

The feeling must have been mutual: The hotel charged them $229 a night. The usual price? According to a search done the following week: $123.

Below: High winds tore branches from trees and sent part of an apartment building’s roof flying. Debris from Top of the Park was found scattered on the grass, draped over power lines, piled against two trucks parked on 41st Avenue, and stuck in a tree on Farragut Street. Photos courtesy Catie Currie.
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