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Area prepares for stormy weather: Local officials say it’s critical to take Florence seriously

Luke Leonard, 19, a Front Royal volunteer firefighter, checks over life jackets inside the department's search and rescue boat at the firehouse on Tuesday. Warren County has two inflatable rafts in addition to this watercraft for use in water rescues as well as over 30 career staff and volunteers trained in swift water rescue operations who will be on call this weekend as Hurricane Florence reaches Virginia. Rich Cooley/Daily

Current models show the brunt of Hurricane Florence will stay south of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, but residents are still preparing for the worst.

The models, according to Cody Ledbetter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, are murky at this point. Projections and models should clear up in the next couple of days, he added.

“That’s where things have been trending,” Ledbetter said, referring to the most optimistic projections that Florence will stay well south of this area, “but we can’t rule out heavy rain and flooding.”

Some residents are taking the model’s word and aren’t worrying about extreme weather this weekend. Most, however, are at least taking moderate precautions.

“All we are doing is prepping for power loss. Foods that don’t need refrigeration, glow sticks and flashlights, and filling the bathtub with water in case we need to flush,” Amber Fawn Andershonis, a Stephens City resident, stated in a Facebook post in response to a Northern Virginia Daily question about what residents are doing to prepare for the storm.

“We may only get 5-8 inches, but the ground is saturated, so flooding and power loss is still a possibility, and if roads get flooded and we can’t get to stores for a day or two, that would be inconvenient,” Andershonis said.

Besides stocking up on food, water and batteries, some residents are preparing generators in case of power outages and pumps for flooded basements.

Power outages as a result of downed power lines are one of the more dangerous side effects of severe weather events like this.

Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative warned its member-owners to be ready for prolonged outages and urged everyone to steer clear of power lines. The co-op will have staff on standby to assist if possible and are asking members to report any outages.

Flooded roads and standing water are at the top of the list of concerns for the Virginia Department of Transportation officials. Eight roads in Shenandoah County were partially closed due to flooding as of noon on Tuesday.

Sandy Myers, a VDOT spokeswoman, said drivers need to heed any warnings, signs and barricades, and to avoid standing water at all costs.

“Never travel over standing water,” she said.

Myers stressed how important it is for drivers to not pass or remove barricades.

“We ask everyone to respect those barricades,” she said. “You don’t know if the road has washed away.”

As coastal Virginia residents have begun evacuating, VDOT is preparing for increased travel — while the roads are still safe. VDOT is lifting temporary lane closures on major routes and increasing incident report staff in some areas according to a press release.

The Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue is urging residents to prepare for the worst.

“Heavy rainfall and severe storms will cause flooding, power outages, and/or other weather-related emergencies,” the department stated in a news release posted on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon. “It is critical to take this storm seriously.”

Both SVEC and the fire and rescue department said residents should prepare safety kits. Fire and rescue recommends kits have enough supplies to last for 72 hours.

Homeowners are taking extra precautions to protect themselves and their property. Last-minute tree trimming is keeping local businesses busy.

“We’ve had a lot more calls than normal,” Jeff Fincham, the owner of Fincham Tree Service, said on Tuesday afternoon.

Fincham estimates he’s had an extra eight to 10 jobs this week from people who want them finished before this weekend.

Ken Lutz Tree Service is seeing an uptick in business as well. Somewhere between five and 10 extra jobs have come in this week, said Lutz’s wife, Kathy.

Ken Lutz and Fincham plan to stay open as long as weather allows this week. Wind and rain could stop services early, but Kathy Lutz said they would try to remain open for emergency calls.

“If we need to get out to someone’s driveway, we will be available if we can [make it],” she said.

Fincham said he would keep trimming until the wind reaches between 30 and 40 mph, or it gets too wet.

“The rain is a factor more than the wind,” Fincham said. The rain, according to Fincham, makes the job dangerous as trees and tools get too slippery.

Other yard conditions homeowners should watch out for are pipes and ditches, according to Myers. She said to make sure they are clear of debris to allow water to flow and prevent standing water from accumulating.

Current projections show Florence touching down in North Carolina early Friday morning, and it will most likely move northwest or west. At some point, the storm will begin to lose power and stall, keeping heavy winds and rains in that area. Meteorologists are unsure, however, where that stopping point will be.

“That’s where the uncertainty lies,” Ledbetter said. “At this point, it’s kind of hard to nail down the details where exactly that might occur.”

Shenandoah National Park will close at noon Thursday and backcountry will close to campers at 10 a.m.  Wednesday, according to the National Park Service website.

Ambiguous but worrisome projections prompted Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a state of emergency on Saturday.

Virginia senators and representatives wrote a letter to President Trump earlier this week, requesting he declare a federal state of emergency.

“A federal emergency declaration would ensure the full availability of federal resources to support the Commonwealth’s efforts to guarantee public safety and rapid recovery from the direct and indirect effects of Hurricane Florence,” they stated in the letter.

Trump responded to the letter Tuesday afternoon, declaring a federal emergency for the state of Virginia along with the Carolinas.

In addition to Monday’s announcement of football schedule changes, two more area high schools and James Madison University have also moved their games up. All local football games have now moved from Friday to either Wednesday or Thursday due to the forecasted weather.

Sherando High School will play its football game at Loudoun Valley High School at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Skyline High School will host Handley High School in Winchester for its matchup at 7 p.m. Thursday.

If Skyline’s field is too wet to play on, the game will move to Handley at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. A decision on that will be made at a later time.

Strasburg High School will play its game at Rappahannock High School at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Stonewall Jackson High School has moved its football game with Luray High School from Friday to 6 p.m. Thursday.

The Warren County High School football game at James Wood High School has moved to  7 p.m. Thursday.

JMU has moved its football game with Robert Morris University from Saturday to 7 p.m. Thursday.

Northern Virginia Daily sports writer Tommy Keeler contributed to this story.

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