He would have sworn it was a train whistle.
Sure, it was the middle of the night, and sure, he had been asleep for a couple of hours. Neither mattered because he remained certain it was a train whistle if only for a few minutes.
Until, of course, the rain and the wind, and then the lightning. That is when Josh Contraguerro woke up his bride and their two children and headed for cover. It was, after all, the early morning of June 14 when a double derecho ravaged communities throughout Ohio County and snapped trees and telephone poles, and cut off power to more than 16,000 customers of Appalachian Power.
“It may have been the scariest 45 minutes of my life,” said Contraguerro, vice president of special services for Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration. “We evacuated to our basement, and I honestly thought every window in my house was going to shatter.
“There was that sound. I’ve heard about that sound on the Weather Channel … that train whistle that storms make when they are really, really strong,” he said. “When it stopped raining, I feared looking outside because I thought houses were going to be gone. And the most amazing lightning show I have ever seen took place afterward. It was like someone was outside my house with a giant strobe light.”
There were no houses missing from his neighborhood, his home’s windows were intact, and Contraguerro was amazed by the lack of residential wreckage other than downed trees between houses.
“I know there were some local residents who experience damage to their houses or their decks, but I thought it was pretty incredible there weren’t more in the areas where the most trees were downed by the storms,” he said. “There were a lot of trees that came down in the area of Wheeling Park, but even those trees didn’t cause as much damage as they could have to shelters and the playground.
“In the neighborhood where Stamm Lane is, I thought there would have been more damage to their homes there, but we were only called to a couple, and that surprised me,” Contraguerro explained. “And Thank God there were no fatalities because, based on what the winds and rains left behind, there could have been.”
As it turned out, thousands of other Wheeling residents heard the same whistle, and that’s because the storm roared through the city before significantly diminishing east of Wheeling Park.
The National Weather Service confirmed it recorded two consecutive derecho storms, and Joelle Moray with American Electric Power reported the event was “unprecedented.”
“Our crews handled a lot on a daily basis but when something like those storms rolls through, there are going to be issues,” she said. “We welcomed hundreds of employees from outside the area and they worked in shifts for days until power was restored for our customers.
“The restorations took place in phases because one downed line fix this part of town but not that one, so on. It was like they were building a puzzle so they could bring electricity back to people as quickly as possible,” she said. “But a double derecho? I’ve been told by the people I work with that someone only sees a storm like that once in their career, and I hope that’s it for me.”
Contraguerro and his family reside near Wheeling Park and their power was out for a little longer than three days. As far as work was concerned, though, he and the crews from Panhandle Cleaning did not stop servicing clients for more than a week after the damage was done.
“The storms we had here in the Wheeling area about a month ago were very unique because they were very unlike what we normally see in this region,” he explained. “Sometimes we experience a storm, and we’ll have some flash flooding in one neighborhood, and other times we’ll have a storm, and there will be a need for generators because of the loss of power.
“But this one involved a lot of everything,” he said. “We had water in basements, we had massive amounts of power outages, we had trees going through roofs, and we had a huge need for temporary air conditioning. We had to keep a lot of businesses and medical facilities up and running for almost an entire week until the folks from AEP were able to get everything hooked back up again.”
Contraguerro confirmed Panhandle crew members were dispatched to a plethora of different areas of Ohio County for a little more than a week, including Oglebay and Wheeling parks, downtown and Center Wheeling, Wheeling Island, and several neighborhoods along National Road in the Woodsdale and Dimmeydale areas.
“Our crews had to switch gears very quickly during that week because the issues seemed to change on a daily basis,” he explained. “There were a lot of evacuations that were avoided because our people were able to get there quickly so everyone in, say, a nursing home could remain right where they were before the storms even hit the area.
“Believe it or not, we enjoy being forced to think out of the box because it allows us to create new ways our equipment can be utilized in emergency situations,” Contraguerro admitted. “That was the case on many occasions back in June.”
Panhandle is headquartered in South Wheeling and also operates offices in Pittsburgh, Morgantown, and Sarasota, Fla., and the company has expanded its workforce to a total of 175 employees. That investment, along with purchasing and maintaining hundreds of pieces of equipment, represents two reasons why the 45-year-old business is capable of such a broad response.
“And our employees are trained very, very well to use the equipment that we have in the areas where we have our four offices, and we’re also capable of moving equipment from one area to another if there is that need,” Contraguerro said. “When it comes to disasters caused by a derecho, or some other kind of natural disaster, our goal has been to have what we need to take care of the issue right then and there instead of having a client wait for the right equipment.
“We have separated ourselves locally, regionally, and nationally by owning all of the equipment that fills our warehouses because now we have the ability to utilize whatever piece of equipment that we need,” he added. “If by chance, it is not in our possession, we are in a partnership with another company that makes it immediately available to us in those emergency situations.”