Volunteers help restore Ky. lights
Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2009 9:23 pm
By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
In terms of damage to its electrical grid, as compared to the Kentucky experience, Union City dodged the proverbial bullet when an ice storm hit on Jan. 26.
“We were fortunate. It could have hit us just as hard as it did Kentucky,” said Scott Gilliam of Union City Electric System.
As elsewhere, the morning-after scene in Union City included downed power lines, lawns and streets strewn with limbs large and small and ice-laden trees with branches bent over as if bowed in prayer.
“At the peak, we had about 3,400 customers out of service. Everybody was back on line by Jan. 31,” Gilliam said.
In the aftermath of the storm came the recovery phase, its most critical priority being restoring electrical power to thousands of households, businesses and public facilities.
Restoration includes replacing hundreds of power poles, lines, transformers and other components of a grid system.
Gilliam said as a result of the storm, Union City Electric System incurred a repair bill of $125,000 to $150,000.
Gibson Electric Membership Corp. in Trenton had a similar experience but on a greater scale. GEMC serves electric customers in eight West Tennessee counties.
GEMC spokesman Rita Alex-ander said at its peak there were about 12,600 outages and all were restored by Feb. 7.
She estimates the repair bill to be $7.2 million.
The Kentucky experience
In Mayfield, Ky., headquarters of West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative, numbers tell a sobering story. The cooperative’s repair bill is estimated to be $15 million.
It serves 37,500 customers in five western Kentucky counties — Carlisle, Graves, Hickman, Calloway and Marshall.
The morning after the storm, the situation was grim, according to Calvin Larkins of Bardwell, Ky., a construction foreman for WKREC. Because of the magnitude of the storm, coordinators of repair services were appointed in each of the five counties. Larkins was appointed coordinator for Carlisle County.
“All (five counties) were without electrical power. We were zero, we were flat-lined. It was a bleak outlook,” Larkins said. “I met with fire departments, the rescue squad, others. I told them, ‘This is where we are. We have a total outage, a total disaster, and it’s going to take all of us to pull through.”
The bleak outlook included an assessment that revealed 300 to 500 power poles had been destroyed or damaged and had to be replaced. But WKREC has only 22 linemen, a substation technician and two meter technicians, a work force far less than what was needed for the gargantuan task at hand. What to do?
Answers are provided by Larkins and by WKREC president and chief executive officer David Smart.
“We began with a network of farmers who have four-wheel drive tractors,” Larkins said. “Few of our poles are next to a road. We knew poles would have to be dragged in, and every pole that’s down would have to be dragged out.”
But where does one acquire replacement poles overnight?
Larkins placed a flurry of phone calls. He explained the emergency situation; soon, poles began arriving.
“We have a guy who owns a sawmill company. He brought his forklift over and helped unload the poles,” Larkins said. “We set up a central location for materials at Carlisle County High School. All the poles, as well as two box trailers full of material needed by linemen, were stockpiled there.”
Meanwhile, Smart and his staff were also on the phone, recruiting “outside” linemen to augment the utility’s 22 linemen. They contacted the Kentucky Association of Electrical Cooperatives and similar organizations in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Each state cooperative contacted member utilities, told them of the Kentucky need and asked, “Can you send any crews to assist them?”
The response was massive and immediate.
“We had over 480 linemen workers in here,” Smart said. “That’s not counting all the right-of-way contractors. So we had an outside work force of about 600.”
They worked long hours over a 13-day period. But at last the entire five-county cooperative was back on line, and the “outside workforce” went home Saturday.
“A lot of Mississippi guys came up right away. There was a large contingent from Tombigbee Electric System in Tupelo, Miss.,” he said.
Of the 37 utilities that sent crews, 26 were electric co-ops, five were contractors and six were municipal electric systems.
One of the great things about the co-op program, Smart said, is its value system — “Co-ops helping co-ops.”
“We have sent men off in the past to help other co-ops. Seven of eight times since I’ve been here. It’s a mutual aid program,” he said. “It’s a testament to our industry. I work in one of the best industries in America, the rural cooperative program. It’s full of people who are willing to give and sacrifice. These people really gave a lot, and they sacrificed time at home to come and help us in our time of need.”
WKREC will send each utility company and each lineman a letter of appreciation.
Smart said he’s been in the business 17 years and had never before seen an ice storm such as this.
“I think we serve a mighty God and He is still in control,” he said. “Sometimes we are tested and it was our time to be tested.”
Smart said the $15 million is just a preliminary figure on the cost of rebuilding the utility’s electrical grid. Until all the invoices for material and labor and such arrive at the accounting office, the final figure remains undetermined.
He said there are two ways to pay the $15 million. FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — could pay 75 to 80 percent. And WKREC’s members will pick up the balance.
“That’ll just be part of what it costs us to do business,” he said. “We are owned by the people we serve.”
And yes, he said, there will be probably be a rate increase.
“We’ve already been discussing it, and it’s not just from the storm,” he said. “We’ve been discussing it for six months.”
Unofficial sources indicate the increase will be an “across the board” $13 per meter.
Those limbs you see hanging from trees, many leaning against power lines, are what linemen call “widow makers.” They’re up there, waiting for a push.
“We’ll be seeing sporadic outages every time we get a real blow of wind the next few months,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of clean-up following this storm. We’ll be months cleaning up everything that was damaged or needs to be picked up and taken out, now that we’ve restored service.”
And about that quarter inch of ice predicted by meteorologists before the storm hit, Smart said it was more than that.
“In places, it was up to an inch and a half thick,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 2.19.09
ice storm, Kentucky, Tennessee