VALUEZTV AM EDITION
Maddy Lauria & Isabel Hughes
All was quiet on North Shore Drive in Milford on Wednesday afternoon, save for the hum of lawnmowers and the rustling of downed branches being shoved onto a trailer hooked to the back of a local businessman’s truck.
The day before, the small neighborhood — filled with manicured lawns and waterfront homes — looked very different. It buzzed with emergency vehicles responding to the first storm-related fatality the state has seen since Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Neighbors weren’t ready to talk about the woman killed on Tuesday by a falling tree branch from Tropical Storm Isaias, out of respect for the family. Another new resident wasn’t even aware of what had happened. And authorities have not yet released the woman’s name.
Thousands of Delawareans on Tuesday were cleaning up and assessing the damage to their homes and cars from Isaias.
It will take days to know the true extent of the storm’s damage in Delaware and elsewhere along the coast, but the Delaware Emergency Management Agency compared Tuesday's storm to Tropical Storm Henri in 2003, which led to more than $16.1 million in damages in the First State alone.
“This is like the equivalent of several strong thunderstorms in a several-hour period,” said DEMA Director A.J. Schall. “It was disastrous and is a huge headache for those that are impacted.”
Based on preliminary reports, Schall estimates the storm may have caused more than $20 million in damages. The final number includes damage to the dozens of homes in Dover and New Castle County, as well as a school, that is now uninhabitable; debris cleanup; and damages to utility infrastructure like downed poles and wires.
It took nearly two weeks for Isaias to journey across the Atlantic Ocean before making landfall in North Carolina late Monday night, and it never became more than a low-level Category 1 storm. Yet it still wreaked havoc on multiple coastal states and impacted millions of residents along the East Coast.
“I think a lot of people think with tropical storms, ‘It’s not a hurricane; we don’t have to worry,'" said Delaware State Climatologist Daniel Leathers. "But there can still be huge impacts with a tropical storm of any strength, really."
The damage, he said, "really highlights the potential impacts even with ‘just’ a tropical storm.”
‘What else is 2020 gonna bring?’
In Middletown’s Summit Bridge Farms, a neighborhood with some of the most significant storm damage, residents dug through fallen trees Wednesday afternoon to find their belongings, which had been carried away by Isaias’ winds the day before.
If they were lucky, they found their yard decorations and deck furniture, sometimes houses away from their own. But some people had no idea where their lost items were carried when a tornado touched down in the area.
The homes were struck in a way that clearly outlined the path of the storm.
A crop field behind one resident’s house showed traces of the tornado’s path before it reached the neighborhood, where homes on either side of the path were minimally damaged, some escaping without any signs of wear.
But other houses were hit hard like the home of Amy Brennan. She was home when the tornado went through, her two teenage sons asleep on the second floor.
She said she heard rumbling and yelled for the boys to come down, one of whom did. When she next looked up, her 14-year-old son, Conner, was at the top of the stairs, just as the storm started to tear the second story off her home.
"Thank gosh it was only for a second," Brennan said. Conner had held tight to the railing and somehow made it down the stairs to join the family.
They're all shaken, but safe.
"I can't imagine the power of that swirling wind. ... The roof is just gone. I don't even know where it is," Brennan said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, State Farm, one Delaware’s largest insurance company, reported its customers had filed 590 homeowners claims, nearly five times more than the number of auto claims — 120 — it had received.
But the insurance company said Wednesday’s numbers are only preliminary and will likely increase as the days go on. The claims also don’t take into account other insurance companies that did not report their numbers.
While State Farm’s claim numbers are remarkable just one day after Isaias swept through, the storm’s damage extended well beyond cars and homes.
Winds from the tropical storm, as well as the tornadoes it produced, knocked down electrical lines, cutting power to more than 115,000 customers, Delmarva Power said.
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, the company had restored power to all but about 8,000 customers. The power company said crews would be working “around the clock” in 12-to-16-hour shifts to get power back to the remaining customers.
More than 800 workers from as far away as Florida and Texas have joined the effort, but some of the most damaged areas in the state may not have electricity until Friday evening, the company said.
Delaware emergency officials said infrastructure such as bridges and roadway structures were largely spared in the storm, though more than 20 roads in New Castle County remained closed Wednesday, long after the wind and rain subsided. Coastal impacts were minimal, with no major flooding or beach erosion reported.
Still, the damage inland was extensive.
State emergency officials are coordinating with county emergency agencies to assess damages and decide whether any federal assistance is needed. They also met with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to discuss the next steps as Delaware recovers.
Those damages are what led Gov. John Carney on Tuesday to issue a state of emergency to better coordinate cleanup efforts among state agencies. The designation was also set Tuesday night in case roads needed to be closed due to lingering flood risks, DEMA’s Schall said.
“‘What else is 2020 gonna bring?’ is what I keep asking myself every morning when I wake up,” said Schall, adding that hurricane season runs until Nov. 30.
“If there’s anything this year has taught us, it’s that people need to be prepared.”
What Delawareans can learn
Tropical Storm Isaias was not the first vicious storm to hit Delaware, and it won’t be the last.
It was, however, among the most damaging the First State has seen in recent years, arguably since Superstorm Sandy slammed the region in October 2012, said Leathers.
“It really did more than I think a lot of people assumed it would,” Leathers said.
“It’s amazing what the path will do. If this had been 150 miles to the east, we wouldn’t be talking about many impacts here at all.”
It wasn’t that the National Hurricane Center or National Weather Service forecasts were off on Isaias' track or expected wind and rain. In fact, predictions of how much rain and how fast winds would blow were about spot-on, Leathers said.
“The thing that’s always a wild card when it comes to land-falling hurricanes is the potential for tornadoes,” he said. “It was just a matter of, this time, this was a very dynamic storm.”
Though the National Weather Service issued tornado watches and warnings as soon as they detected conditions rife for producing twisters, “whether or not tornadoes are produced within a weather system is really hard to forecast that far ahead of time,” Leathers said.
“It’s unusual for us — we just typically don’t see that number of tornadoes,” he said. “But we have had tornadoes before with tropical systems.”
Initial reports suggested several separate tornadoes touched down in Kent and New Castle counties Tuesday, but the National Weather Service said on Wednesday it was most likely one tornado that touched down multiple times. It will take at least another day or more to make that determination.
Four sightings had been reported — on Sandtown Road near Felton, along Route 13 in Smyrna, in the area of Route 8 and Bennington Street in Dover and on
Gum Bush Road near Townsend. It’s not unusual for a tornado to touch down then revert to more of a funnel cloud, then touch down again somewhere else, Leathers said.
Normally when a hurricane or tropical system makes landfall, they begin to weaken. Warm ocean waters are key to fueling tropical systems, and without that source, the storms often start to flounder.
But the conditions were perfect for Tropical Storm Isaias to maintain its strength on its rapid northward journey up the East Coast. An upper-level trough in the atmosphere gave the storm its fast-moving forward speed, but also helped it keep its strength. That, combined with the dynamic nature of the storm’s wind field, created the perfect recipe for tornados, Leathers said.
“This particular one, even though it was never that strong from a hurricane standpoint, because of the overall meteorological situation and the path it took, it did a lot of damage from the coastal Carolinas all the way up into New England,” Leathers said. “People need to remember that: This was a tropical storm, but there were fatalities and injuries and property damage.
“That’s why, if you hear a tropical storm is coming into your area, it’s important to take that seriously.”