Features

The waiting is the hardest part

National | ISABEL: As long as it took the hurricane to arrive, her effects will stay longer

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

The lines at Burger King are never supposed to be this long. "It's a Hardee's crowd," Darla Clifton said. Nonetheless, a line of nearly 60 people snaked through the front of the store, out the door and into morning daylight. It wasn't a typical Saturday morning. Hardee's was closed, as was the McDonald's two blocks down. All the fast-food joints-and most of everything else-without generators remained closed in the wake of Hurricane Isabel. So just two days after the storm swept through their Norfolk, Va., neighborhood, Jim and Darla Clifton tried to carry on their Saturday routines in much the same way they always have, but the morning yardwork involved more than raking-and it involved more than the morning.

The couple couldn't help but chuckle when one woman abandoned her spot in the breakfast line, shouting about having to wait. "We're all going to be waiting a long time," Mrs. Clifton said. "You know, without power." The Cliftons and people up and down the Eastern Seaboard will have done a lot of waiting for power to be restored.

When Isabel swept through, she knocked out power from North Carolina up through the Mid-Atlantic. But nowhere were the power outages more widespread than the Tidewater region of southern Virginia, where Dominion Power reported 94 percent of its nearly 800,000 customers had lost electricity. (Shortly after power was restored, a tornado in Richmond shut down electricity again.) Isabel knocked out 90 percent of power in Central Virginia and 84 percent of power in northeastern North Carolina. By the Monday after, utility trucks from as far away as Texas joined the utility army of nearly 10,000 working on lines battered by downed trees.

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Isabel blasted North Carolina's Outer Banks as a Category 2 hurricane, causing widespread damage to property and infrastructure. The storm severed Hatteras Island with a new inlet near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, stranding hundreds of residents and jettisoning one house into Pamlico Sound. The storm washed away parts of Highway 12-the island chain's only physical link to the mainland-slowing recovery efforts and homeowners trying to reach their houses after evacuating. Isabel tossed trees into power lines and onto the northbound lane of U.S. Highways 17 and 13 from New Bern, N.C., all the way up the coastline to the Norfolk area.

The Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk flooded with nearly 44 million gallons of water from the swollen Elizabeth River. For days before the hurricane, the Virginia Department of Transportation tested and prepared for Isabel but did not anticipate the tunnel flooding. Nearly 35,000 cars use it every day.

Dan Coker, associate pastor at Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake (near some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods), said it was his first hurricane. He moved to Virginia from Winston-Salem, N.C., on Labor Day weekend and rents a house in Chesapeake.

He and his family had to move out of the house the day Isabel made landfall in North Carolina when local winds reached the 40 mph range. A large oak tree smashed into his house, letting in wind and rain. It would take a crane to pull the trunk out of their house and tarps and ropes to secure the roof.

The Cokers rode out the storm at the church, where the Red Cross had set up a command post. "Red Cross has done a fantastic job," Mr. Coker said. "They've been real leaders." Since the storm, he and his family have been making do at home with candles and flashlights. And a gas grill.

The Cliftons, too, are making the best of a difficult situation, but they weren't hit as hard as some of their neighbors. One neighbor's tree limb smashed in the roof of their backyard shed. Like many in the hardest-hit regions, they'll be filing an insurance claim with Allstate. "So, we're going to claim all the food gone bad in the fridge. If we're going to pay the $1,000 deductible, we might as well get our money's worth," Mrs. Clifton said. Early signs show the recovery from Isabel may end up being half as expensive to insurance companies as Hurricane Floyd, which struck the same general area in 1999. According to the Insurance Information Institute, Isabel will cost insurers nearly $1 billion. Adjusted to 2002 dollars, Hurricane Andrew cost nearly $20 billion.

Jim Clifton said he spent part of the storm outside waiting and watching. He said he kept seeing a tree bending closer and closer to his neighbor's roof. After he ran over and told the family to move to the other side of the house, the tree gave way and crushed the roof. "I was really surprised how many trees went down-the wind didn't seem that bad. But you could time it," he said. "You'd hear one go, then a big wind and, 'snap,' another one."

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