Hurricane Irene could darken cities from the Carolinas to New England

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August 26, 2011 — Hurricane Irene, which first became a named hurricane north of Puerto Rico, is anticipated to strike the United States' Eastern Seaboard at North Carolina August 26.

Mark Hoekzema, chief meteorologist for Earth Networks' WeatherBug said in a conference call on Irene that the storm will almost certainly cause widespread interruptions in electricity service along its forecast path.

Power outages will be a problem up to about 50 miles inland, he said, as the storm surges roll in and high wind gusts topple trees and power lines.

"Conditions will improve rapidly when you get about 75 miles out from the center of the storm. Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore and New York City will all be buffeted by a good bit of rain and winds," Hoekzema said.

Washington, D.C. could see peak wind gusts of as much as 50 miles per hour. New York City and its boroughs could see gusts of about 60 miles per hour. Along the windward side of Long Island, hurricane-force winds could blow up to 80 miles per hour.

Hoekzema went on to say that winds this forceful will come in gusts, and will not likely be sustained. However, many power outages associated with this storm will be created by wind gusts and falling trees.

The storm will weaken as it moves north through New England and into Maine, so a lower percentage electric customers could see outages in those areas. However, he said that because of the tall, leafy trees in that area, the damage to the power grid could be just as bad as in the South.

"A consideration there is that they still have deciduous trees, so you get a different effect. Higher trees with more leaves don't need as much wind to cause damage. There's still going to be widespread power outages in those areas even with a weakened storm. The risks for power outages in the north will probably be almost equal as in the South," he said.

Hoekzema compared Irene with 1991's Hurricane Bob, which followed a similar track up the Eastern Seaboard and caused deaths in the region.

So far, the hurricane appears to be following closely to its previously forecast path, he said, so people in those areas should continue to take this storm seriously.

"So far, it is following its forecasted track, but any changes could mean a significant difference in wind and rain to the major metro areas. A shift to the east could mean much less impact to these major metro areas in the storm's currently forecasted path," he said.

If the hurricane picks up speed, he said, then storms could hit more quickly than anticipated, but would also depart sooner.

"Usually these storms pick up speed and can end up moving by faster than forecast. We're thinking that the storm might move faster up the coast. That would create a situation where the duration of the winds would be less and the storm surges would be shorter in duration," he said.

Nuclear facilities prepare

More than a half-dozen nuclear plants are in Irene's path, but may not experience wind speed that require them to shut down. High storm surges or debris could present operating problems.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations generally call for nuclear reactors to be completely shut down several hours ahead of the arrival of hurricane-force winds of 75 miles per hour or greater.

Even when shut, the loss of off-site power is a concern since a nuclear plant needs outside power to run safety systems to keep the reactor core and used fuel cool.

Entergy Nuclear's Indian Point Energy Center in New York, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts and Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vermont are continuing to track Hurricane Irene's path and potential for high winds and rainfall as the storm approaches New York and New England.

Back-up diesel-powered generators are available to provide electricity to plant safety systems if power from outside sources is lost. In addition, in the event of a loss of offsite power, plants are designed to safely shut down should they need to.

Entergy Nuclear operators at each site have ensured sufficient diesel generator fuel and water as part of preparations to deal with an extended loss of off-site power in the event that damage to area transmission lines interrupts that power source.

Under severe weather procedures, plant operators monitoring area wind speeds may actually take precautionary actions to begin shutting the plants down prior to those winds reaching the site.

Because forecasts have not predicted hurricane-force winds in the area, Progress Energy said that its Brunswick nuclear plant along the North Carolina coastline will continue to operate throughout the storm — although the NRC has sent extra staff to the station.

Plant operators said the plant is located 22 feet above sea level and built to withstand winds of 128 miles per hour.

The operators of Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear plant in New York, have said that they have plans in place to reduce power output and go offline should wind speeds exceed 100 miles per hour.

In New Jersey, Exelon Nuclear's Oyster Creek Generating Station is undergoing storm preparations in advance of the hurricane's expected arrival in the state August 27. The facility has diesel backup generators ready in case power from the grid is interrupted.

NextEra Energy's Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire is also battening down the hatches. Seabrook was designed to withstand hurricane- and tornado-force winds, its plant operators said.

Constellation Energy Nuclear group said it was preparing its Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland and its Nine Mile Point and R.E. Ginna plants in New York for the storm by removing on-site trailers and inspecting outdoor areas for equipment that could become airborne in heavy wind. Plant crews also are topping off emergency diesel fuel tanks and evaluating roof conditions.

Local governments, utilities hunker down

As of press time, the governors of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, North Carolina, New York and Rhode Island have each declared a state of emergency. Washington, D.C. has also declared an emergency.

Electricity provider Pepco Inc said it had requested 600 emergency workers from other regions, and had already deployed 150 of them, to prepare for Irene's heavy rain and high winds that "could cause widespread and extended power outages."

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called an emergency session of his cabinet that included making tree-trimming workers available. The New York Power Authority and the Long Island Power Authority are redeploying three transmission crews, as well as trucks and equipment, to coastal areas.

LIPA is coordinating with National Grid to ensure it is fully prepared on Long Island. NYPA is monitoring the effects of storms on power generation capacity. The New York authorities are also relying on arrangements for mutual aid crews from other utilities as the storm passes and on contract crews from as far away as Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Mississippi.

In New Jersey, Public Service Electric and Gas have called up about 840 line workers, 540 tree contractors and associated trucks and equipment to deal with the aftermath of the storms. In total, about 6,000 PSE&E employees will be coordinated for the response effort.

FirstEnergy Corp. utilities Jersey Central Power & Light, Metropolitan Edison and Potomac Edison are mobilizing employees and resources to help aid the restoration process should the storm impact customers' electric service.

Company meteorologists continue to monitor Hurricane Irene's progress and are providing targeted forecasts regarding its potential impact on the JCP&L, Met-Ed and Potomac Edison service areas.

National response

President Barack Obama plans to return to Washington August 27 as planned from his vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, the White House said. In a speech August 26, Obama said the hurricane threatens to be extremely dangerous and costly.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters confirmed that citizens should anticipate and prepare for the possibility of widespread power outages associated with the hurricane.

Napolitano said citizens should pay attention to their local authorities and follow any orders for evacuations when and where they are issued.

She also said there will be necessary financial resources to address the storm's damage in the disaster relief fund.

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