Wheeling Assessing, Cleaning Up After Tuesday Storm
Residents of Wheeling were cleaning up Wednesday after a strong storm Tuesday morning. The damage is significant, but isolated.
Generators, chainsaws, and woodchippers provided a soundtrack Wednesday as the Wheeling community recovered from the Tuesday morning storm that knocked out power to most of downtown, Wheeling Hospital, and several communities to the east.
The damage was severe enough that Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for Ohio County Wednesday afternoon that will remain in effect for 30 days.
At its height, the storm passed through the area with sustained winds of 60-70 miles per hour, and gusts of up to 80 miles per hour.
Lou Vargo, the Director of the Wheeling–Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, says the trail of damage indicates a unique weather event.
“It's a straight line event,” Vargo said. He is asking the National Weather Service to investigate.
“And they said, ‘So are you thinking a tornado?’ We're not seeing the twisting of the trees coming out. It's just literally uprooted these trees, 100 year old trees, three or four foot diameter trunks of trees that were just lifted right out of the ground,” he said. “You can almost look on a map and just draw a straight line, put an arrow and say ‘This is how it came through.’”
Some of the promised 100 work crews have already arrived to help restore power as quickly as possible. As of Wednesday evening, 7,000 residents remained without power, but an American Electric Power (AEP) representative said restoration would continue late into the evening.
The number of residents without power had improved to 5,000 by Thursday morning.
“This is an all hands on deck situation,” said Joelle Moray, External Affairs Manager with AEP.
Justice also announced members of the National Guard will be on the ground Thursday to help with cleanup.
No fatalities or injuries directly related to the storm have been reported. Vargo hopes it stays that way, and urges any residents using power tools or moving large downed trees and limbs to use caution.
To the east of downtown, Wheeling Park seemed to bear the brunt of the storm’s force. Park manager Nat Goudy said more than 100 trees were damaged, many of them large and decades old.
“Some massive, massive trees that were 50, 60 feet high, just drop, snap like a twig,” Goudy said.
So many trees were down Tuesday morning, Goudy said he couldn’t even drive into the park and had to come in on foot. The park’s roads had been cleared Wednesday, but the park was still without power. Goudy hopes it will be restored soon so the park can return to being a center of the community even as cleanup efforts continue.
“We’re the city park,” he said. “It was amazing seeing the support of the people coming in yesterday. ‘What can we do? Can we bring some rakes over? We're here to help you.’ You know, just people who love the parks, want to make sure it stays open.”
Vicky Yost echoed that sentiment of camaraderie.
“In the middle of a catastrophe, in the middle of what could have been a tragedy, I looked up my lane and I saw eight of my neighbors coming down,” she said.
Yost lives across National Road from Wheeling Park in the Stamm Lane area, which was directly in the path of the storm.
One of those helpful neighbors was Terry Huffman, who described being woken up by the storm.
“It was the wee hours of the morning. I'm not sure exactly what time but it hit hard and fast, five minutes, maybe,” Huffman said. “Literally the whole house shook and was as loud as a train going through your house.”
Huffman was helping the Yosts get a generator installed to make sure they had a way to cool themselves down.
“The biggest thing now is we have people without air conditioning, and it's going to be really super hot today,” he said.
According to data from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, Wednesday’s high in Wheeling was 92. But with high humidity, the heat index –- or what the temperature feels like –- was closer to 100.
Tim Ritchie walked across the bridge from his home on Wheeling Island to access a cooling shelter in the WesBanco Arena. He said the walk, which normally takes him 15 minutes, took him an hour in the heat. If power outages persist along with high temperatures, his biggest concern is his elderly neighbors.
“Half the island’s pretty much no electric and there's a lot of people that don't drive,” Ritchie said. “I mean they offer bus service, but the elderly is not going to hop on the bus and come down here.”
Officials hope additional work crews will help get more people back on the grid quickly, but efforts may be stymied Thursday by even higher temperatures, and the threat of more storms through the afternoon and into the evening.
“We can restore power during a rain event,” Moray said. “The wind is the factor.”
AEP is monitoring the weather, but the company’s meteorologists believe any storms Thursday will not rise to the level of Tuesday’s event.