Friday, Jul 6, 2012
On the evening of Friday, June 29th, the three parks administered through New River Gorge National River – New River Gorge, Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River – were struck by a fast-moving derecho. The straight-line windstorm came on the area without warning and packed winds of 80 to 100 mph. The National Weather Service has compared the impacts along its path to those of an EF-1 tornado, except over a much broader area – in this case, from Illinois to Washington, DC.
Rangers quickly determined that visitors were trapped in campgrounds by fallen trees, and park staff worked through the night to remove enough downed trees to get them out. One person was slightly hurt and several cars were damaged by falling trees. Rangers continued to help visitors and began surveying damage on Saturday. Temperatures of 100 degrees – unheard of in this area – drove visitors to the parks’ rivers and streams. Thousands inched around downed trees or cut their way into favored riverside sites. The initial size-up indicated that there were thousands of trees down in visitor areas, that there was no power to any site within the three parks, and that almost every park employee was without power at home. By mid-afternoon, gas shortages (only a few stations in the four-county area were operating) forced park staff to reduce recovery efforts and patrols, and maintain stationary posts at the highest use sites so that gas could be conserved in case of a further emergency. The power company reported damage to every main transmission line and to more than 50 area substations, and more poles snapped in Fayette County (where park headquarters and many of most frequently visited park sites are located) than anywhere else in the four state area.
Predictably, the many visitors at and in the river led to an emergency. The park received a call around 7 p.m. Saturday night reporting that an intoxicated man on a sit-on-top kayak had overturned in the New River near the I-64 bridge. His friends had not seen him come up after his spill. A hasty search revealed his kayak and life jacket downstream from the point at which he was last seen; further searches of the river and its banks revealed nothing. The search was called off around 10 p.m. because of the darkness and lack of power. It resumed the next morning and continued until 10:30 a.m., when the missing man’s friend, standing at the incident command post, got a call from him. He was found wandering around a school about 10 miles upstream from where he had gone into the river. He had little recollection of how he got there, and rangers, smelling alcohol on his breath at the debriefing, tested him and found his blood alcohol content to be 0.193. He was cited by West Virginia DNR for boating under the influence of alcohol and by the NPS for creating and maintaining a dangerous condition. Still, for a park that has experienced seven visitor fatalities since March, finding him alive was a happy outcome.
In the meantime, park facilities remain without power, as do approximately 60% of park employees. Some have now lost water as well. Appalachian Power is estimating that most power will be restored by this Sunday evening, but some park staff have been told that it will be several weeks before their power can be restored. A sudden thunderstorm last Sunday evening brought down trees previously damaged by the derecho, some in areas that had already been cleared. Recovery efforts will continue for the next several weeks; temperatures are expected to stay in the mid-nineties though the weekend.