Virginia Governor Defends Mandatory Evacuations

By | September 1, 2011

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell credited mandatory evacuations for saving lives during Hurricane Irene.

As many as 200,000 Virginians were under mandatory evacuation orders during the weekend storm, and many others were urged to leave coastal areas and those prone to flooding. While Irene didn’t deliver the punch that was predicted, McDonnell said that likely was because Virginia was prepared.

Appearing beside alongside Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a Tuesday news conference, McDonnell said Virginia didn’t get away unscathed. Falling trees killed four people, and flooding and power outages were widespread.

But warnings of a possible “storm of a lifetime” with “catastrophic” results as while the storm weakened as late as Friday never materialized, to the relief of the governor, officials in dozens of southeastern Virginia cities and counties and to hundreds of thousands of residents grateful that Irene did far less damage than Isabel in 2003.

Both were category 1 hurricanes, but Isabel killed 30 people in Virginia, caused record storm surge flooding in Chesapeake Bay and nearly half of Virginia’s 7.1 million residents at the time were left without electricity, some for more than two weeks.

A total of 1.2 million Dominion customers were affected by Irene. By midnight Sunday, a day after the storm had reached its peak in Virginia, 700,000 were without power, and by midnight Monday, the number was down to 460,000 said Dominion spokesman Dan Donovan.

As of Tuesday evening, about 323,000 customers of Virginia’s dominant utility, Dominion, were still in the dark in Virginia, meaning that service had been restored to about two-thirds of those that Irene knocked offline. Of that total, 67 percent were in the Richmond area where thousands of old-growth trees were toppled onto homes, cars and power lines.

Another 34,000 Dominion customers remained without power in an area of northeastern North Carolina the company serves.

Dominion said that as many as 95 percent of its customers will be back in service by Friday.

McDonnell said state and local officials did not overreact in ordering mandatory evacuations for a storm that did not live up to its early prognostications, and dismissed the prospect that people will more easily dismiss similar warnings when a more devastating storm hits Virginia.

“You look 72 hours out or so and it’s a potential category 3 landfall, it is a dire circumstance,” McDonnell said. “We all agree that we have a duty — a moral obligation — to warn people of a worst-case scenario.”

Napolitano said McDonnell and local leaders who mandated the evacuations did the right thing.

“We think that that, overall, minimized the loss of life in this storm, not just in Virginia but in other places as well,” she said. “It also kept the roads relatively open so first-responders could quickly get in there and do restoration as soon as the storm passed.”

Specifically, McDonnell cited the order to evacuate Virginia Beach’s oceanside Sandbridge community where a suspected tornado spawned by Irene destroyed numerous homes that had been evacuated.

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