Rosemary McGinnis looked out the door of her home on Lahore Road Thursday night and into the darkness of a fierce storm. The rain battered the house and she could hear the towering trees along the nearby fenceline cracking with the violent winds.
“It was just black outside. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear those trees,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘If they fall, I’ve only got a second or two before they hit the house.’”
Walking around her yard Friday morning, among downed powerlines and snapped utility poles, McGinnis counted her blessings. “It could have been worse,” she said. “Most of this is just clean-up and that just takes time.”
Later in the day, she discovered a seven-month-old goat on her farm had been killed in the storm. “It’s going to break my heart to tell the grandkids that,” she said.
According to the National Weather Service, winds gusting up to 29 miles per hour ripped through Orange Thursday evening, bringing heavy rain and severe damage.
Orange County Sheriff Mark Amos said the damage seemed worst on Route 20 from the Town of Orange north to the Nasons area. He said the sheriff’s office operated off generator power Thursday night, only getting back online Friday morning as Dominion Energy crews worked to restore power outages throughout the area.
At the Northern Piedmont Center on Route 15, farm manager Greg Lillard recorded 0.7 inches of “much needed” rainfall with Thursday’s storm.
Farmers may have appreciated the rain, but residents in and around Orange likely didn’t.
John W. Morris stood outside his Piedmont Street home in town and watched as Travis Lam and Raymond Pierce of Richard’s Tree and Lawn Care removed a large evergreen from the roof of his home.
“I was sitting in there on the sofa last night and when it hit the house, it just shook me like this,” he said, quickly moving his hands back and forth. “It was just pouring down and raining to beat the band. I had enough of that tune.”
In the light of day Friday morning, he looked outside and saw a whole lot of leaves and a few little branches.
“Then, he looked up,” his daughter Carolyn Herndon said.
“That’s when it hit me!” her father exclaimed. “That tree wasn’t even rotten, either.”
Many of the fallen trees along Rapidan Road, down Lahore Road and throughout the Town of Orange seemed fairly hardy, given the bright, healthy seeming wood revealed where the storm snapped them.
At Cynthia Whitman’s cottage fronting Route 615, a large tree was draped over the front porch, but the AirBnB unit seemed undamaged until she pointed out the branch that had pierced through the roof of the porch right above the front door.
“I had just gotten this painted and looking like I wanted,” she lamented. “And I’m supposed to have a guest stay here this weekend. Inside is fine, though.”
Whitman said she was in her home nearby when the storm ripped through the area Thursday evening. “For the first time ever, I was scared in my house,” she said.
Nearby, at the edge of the Town of Orange, Danielle Slater said it was hard to describe what the storm sounded like.
“It sounded close to a train, I guess, which is what they say a tornado sounds like,” she said. “I think what we heard was the sound of the trees falling.”
Slater said her husband tried to open the front door of their house to get a video of the storm, but couldn’t do so without getting the inside soaking wet.
“We both had to push on the door to get it closed against that wind.”
Orange Public Works Superintendent Jeff Dodson said the storm “was about as bad as I’ve seen in the town.” He’s worked for the town more than 25 years. “Everything’s a mess. This will take us at least two weeks to get everything cleaned up.”
He said the town closed Landon Lane, Marshall Street and Piedmont at some point during the evening because of downed trees and unsafe conditions.
On Marshall Street, one of those downed trees landed right atop Walter Williams’ truck.
He and his wife were inside the house working on a puzzle at the kitchen table.
“At about 8:30 I looked out and a little branch was down in the front yard and I thought, ‘OK.’ ” he said. “The next thing I know, the curtains on the door blew back and up and the walnuts start falling from that tree on top of the house, and I look outside and there’s this tree laying on my truck.”
He’d been hoping the weather would break before he was to report to his night shift job. Something broke, all right. Ultimately, his wife, Tina, sent her husband’s employer a photo of the tree on the truck backing up his claim he wouldn’t make it to work Thursday night.
Virginia Cooperative Extension Forestry Agent Adam Downing said it may “seem” like more tree limbs are breaking and trunks uprooting this summer, “but research has shown time and again that memory (i.e., seeming) is not reliable in this sort of arena.”
He said in general, as far as trees and storms go, a healthy tree fares better in a violent storm. Tree health includes branch structure, overall vigor and undamaged roots, among other characteristics, he said.
“One reason we see more damage is that where we look, trees are in compromised situations where there has been recent construction (compacting soil for example) or a tree that has outgrown its root space (along sidewalks, for example),” Downing added. “So many factors come into play with tree damage. Severe weather is one, but only one.”
At the Orange County Emergency Communications Center, director Domonique Curry reported a spike in call volume during the 9 p.m. hour following the storm, with more than five times the usual number of emergency calls.
“We handled over 30 reports of trees down, seven lines down, a motor vehicle accident and a utility pole fire, to name a few,” she said.
Taking a brief break from working outages around Orange, a crew of Dominion Power workers (who asked not to be identified) said they’d been running calls since early Thursday night. One said it’s the worst tree damage he’d seen working for the utility.
“Big wind, big trees, big wire,” said another lineman, summing up the crew’s recent efforts.
Power outages were an inconvenience for dozens of homes in the area, and a substantial problem for Orange County Schools Friday morning.
Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead said he learned of possible power outages at Orange County High School (OCHS) and Unionville Elementary School (UES) at approximately 5 a.m. Friday, about the same time school bus drivers begin their day.
Snead said based on the information he had at the time, he expected power to be restored by 6 a.m., in plenty of time for the school day.
But things didn’t work out like that.
“Power wasn’t restored at OCHS until 10:23 a.m. and at UES until 10:43 a.m. In the meantime, we made the decision to close the affected schools,” Snead said.
Parents and guardians were alerted via School Messenger, the division’s automated messaging system. Students who had already arrived at Unionville were transported to nearby Lightfoot Elementary School, where they were then sent home by bus or picked up at 9 a.m.
Friday afternoon, Lillard said it seemed like the rainfall and weather this summer has been “all or nothing.”
“By the numbers, things look about average,” he said. “But all the rain seems to come in large amounts with storms spread out over time.”
According to data recorded at the station, Lillard has recorded 27.47 inches of rain to date, slightly above the 26.16 annual average.
“Smaller, more regular rain showers would keep things well watered,” he said of crops and gardens. “It’s hard to do that with 2 inches at once and then no rain for a week.”
Rainfall totals in June showed nearly 5.5 inches, well above the 3.82 annual average. But more than 3 inches of that fell in two storms. July’s rainfall total (4.18’) fell just shy of the annual average (4.33”), with nearly 3 inches of the total falling in two storms a week apart.
“I always told my children, to find the one thing to be thankful for in a bad situation and just focus on that,” McGinnis said, as a neighbor riding by asked her if she was OK and needed anything. She said it was heartening Thursday night to see neighbors and strangers working side by side after the storm to clear the road and clean up debris. “Other people have it worse. That makes it easier to count your blessings.”