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Squirrel shenanigans bring downtown Roanoke commerce to a halt
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Squirrel shenanigans bring downtown Roanoke commerce to a halt

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Downtown Roanoke ground to a near halt Monday morning. To the extent business, government and justice moved ahead, it was by feeling along in the dark.

Why?

Squirrel!

For the third time in a month, one of the furry, high-strung rodents cracked into the power grid and, for a brief moment, became part of it — in the process short-circuiting power to nearly 600 Appalachian Power Co. customers. The power company office itself was in the dark.

Two media outlets, including The Roanoke Times, posted news of the outage via smartphones from dim newsrooms.

The federal courthouse and the public library closed. Cooks couldn’t cook. For a few hours Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital and Roanoke City Hall operated on generator power. In bankruptcy court, hearings went on — with flashlights.

Appalachian Power soon discerned that a squirrel had infiltrated its Seventh Street substation just west of downtown and caused the outage.

Power was restored about 11:30 a.m., but social media crackled all along with humorous musings that a common squirrel had nearly disabled the heart of the largest city in Western Virginia.

It’s a shockingly common occurrence (ahem) but Jim Parkhurst, a Virginia Tech professor specializing in wildlife-human conflict resolution, notes that squirrels are joined as culprits by birds, snakes and other mammals.

But if a tongue-in-cheek website that documents animal assaults on the world’s power grids is to be believed, squirrels account for more than half of them.

In Monday’s case, there was no question what happened.

“They go in, start looking, and there’s the deceased squirrel there on the ground,” said Appalachian spokeswoman Teresa Hall.

The substation, a multi-story, open-air connection point for numerous circuits, occupies most of a block between Salem and Rorer avenues.

It’s surrounded by a chain link fence, and power lines connected to the substation are fitted with seemingly effective animal guards designed to keep squirrels from crossing into the area.

“It was surprising for everyone, because we have not had any animal issues at this substation over the last 10 years,” Hall said.

Appalachian Power workers believe the squirrel came in through or under the fence, and in climbing upward on the power infrastructure touched a disconnect switch on a breaker box.

“The best laid plans were there, but if there’s something more we could do, we’re certainly looking at it now,” Hall said. 

Like others, Hall was struck that in the 21st century, a single critter could scramble life for thousands of people and hundreds of businesses, but that’s what happened Monday.

At the Office of the U.S. Trustee, which supervises bankruptcy cases in Southwest Virginia, proceedings were held by flashlight in a darkened hearing room.

"In 25 years of practice, we've never done hearings in the dark before," said Malissa Giles, a Roanoke attorney who participated in one of the cases in the First Campbell Square building.

When the lights went out, initial hearings were underway in Chapter 13 cases, which allow wage earners to develop repayment plans for their debts. Because the hearings are conducted under oath and are recorded, staffers had to scramble to find battery backups for the electronic equipment.

The only light in the windowless room came from flashlights and smartphones held by attorneys and other participants.

As the morning wore on, downtown Roanoke restaurant owners began to worry that losing electricity would mean losing the crucial lunch-crowd business.

“We’re hanging out with the other business owners and making the best of the situation,” Karena Clinton, co-owner of R.T. Smith’s Fine Delicatessen, said as she stood outside on the sidewalk.

“For us, if we can’t find the humor in this we’re going to have to cry,” Clinton said.

Just down Campbell Avenue at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea, the only hot drinks remaining by 11:30 a.m. were three air pots of tea.

“I’m only open until we sell what’s left,” said manager Caleb Awalt, the last employee left after other staffers were sent home. Awalt said he would wait a few more hours before deciding whether to reopen for the day.

But he didn’t have to wait that long. As he spoke, the lights flickered back on.

When squirrels attack, many see the humor in it.

A website called CyberSquirrel1 purports to have documented and mapped more than 2,200 attacks on the international power grid since 1987 by animals, most of them by squirrels. The site describes the animals as “operatives” in a clandestine operation to take down the grid, and reports incidents as “unclassified operations.”

Locally, a month ago, a squirrel snacking on a power line blew a transformer that shut down the Kirk Family YMCA in downtown Roanoke. That outage affected five customers.

Earlier this month, an Election Day squirrel-induced outage in Blacksburg shut down power to hundreds of customers, including two polling places.

“It happens more frequently than people realize,” said Parkhurst, the Tech wildlife biologist.

The “how” of the phenomenon is both obvious and grisly.

“There is a relationship between animal size and incidence of the problem here,” Parkhurst said.

That is, an animal manages to touch two sources of current, thereby creating an unintended circuit that shorts out part of the power system. It might be a squirrel’s forepaws and tail, or the wings of a bird, or even just nesting materials a creature is carrying.

“The ultimate outcome is usually too easily defined in end products,” Parkhurst said. “A lack of power and a fried animal.”

What’s less apparent is why it happens with such regularity.

Parkhurst cited some sensible theories. Some “larger avian culprits” — predatory birds — are naturally attracted to the higher reaches of substation infrastructure as perches from which they can survey an area for prey.

Other animals might be in search of an area to nest. Starlings are known to compile nesting materials near transformers that trigger fires and outages, he said.

Mammals, including squirrels, could also be seeking a nesting location, and could be attracted to any warmth emanating from power lines.

“They do look for secure places like that that afford some benefit,” Parkhurst said.

While squirrels are clever creatures — known for defeating every attempt to deter them from raiding bird feeders, for example — Parkhurst said there are surely methods to keep them and other animals out of the power grid.

“We just need to find the one that’s cost effective and achieves the results we need,” he said.

And he just happens to know a few people who research this sort of thing, if anyone out there is interested in funding it.

Staff writer Laurence Hammack contributed information to this report.

Contact Matt Chittum at matt.chittum@roanoke.com or 981-3331. Follow him on Twitter: @mattchittum.

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