Saturday, December 29, 2012

TOP STORY >> Austin’s top cop patrols in storm

Leader staff writer

At 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Tony Bryant, the new police chief in Austin, was headed home with the intention of going to bed. His workday had started almost 24 hours earlier.

The city, where a fifth of the homes were without power this week, received 12 inches of snow Christmas Day, according to the National Weather Service.

Power, phone and cable lines were down all over, generally the result of falling trees or limbs, local officials in Lonoke County said.

For the most part, Bryant was patrolling to make sure there were no problems in the city. Some hilly streets were impassible, but he said he didn’t work any wrecks.

However, Bryant did help the fire department clear trees on Hwy. 67/167 that had fallen between Ward and Austin and at the Austin exit.

Austin Mayor Bernie Chamberlain said workers started salting the streets as soon as the sleet started on Christmas Day. By Thursday afternoon, power had been restored to most of the city, including city hall, Chamberlain said.

Ward, where 20 percent of the homes were without power, was also accident-free. Deborah Staley at city hall said workers salted hills and intersections to keep traffic flowing.

The senior citizen center on Grant Street next door to the library in Cabot was opened to the public as a warming center for northern Lonoke County Wednesday evening.

But at 3 p.m. Thursday, director Cherry Godwin was still waiting for guests. “I’ve got the coffee pot on, but nobody’s here,” Godwin said.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert said in a press release Thursday afternoon that the center would also be open through Friday to anyone who needed a place to stay.

Off-duty police officers were available through Cabot police dispatch at 843-6526 to drive the senior center vans for pickups, he said. Guests were advised that they could bring bedding and snacks but no pets.

Residents with and without power braved the cold to pick up necessities from grocery stores and quick meals from fast food restaurants.

Little Caesar’s of Arkansas president Michael Fritz said the storm affected some locations with power outages.

Restaurants opened later and closed earlier because of concerns over their employees and customers traveling home.

Fritz said food delivery companies helped out by allowing supplies to stay in the refrigerated trucks until power was restored at the restaurants.

He said the restaurants saw above normal business Thursday and Friday.

Knight’s Super Foods co-owner Kent Knight said they were very fortunate to only lose power for just a few hours at their stores.

He said people were really patient.

Customers were buying charcoal, hot dogs, sausages and hamburgers so they could cook outside, Knight said.

Residents went elsewhere for other items.

Cabot Home Depot assistant store manager Tom McCutchen said, “We had a whole lot of people needing generators, kerosene and propane heaters.”

Snow shovels, ice melt and winter-weather related products have been selling out since the storm, McCutchen said.

He said the Cabot store had to get an emergency shipment of generators from other stores to satisfy the increased demand.

Like the rest of the state, much of Cabot was without power and is being restored in increments.

When power didn’t come back on at the animal shelter, workers hooked up a portable generator to keep the animals warm, said Eddie Cook, the city’s director of operations.

Cook said he told residents about the warming center and all the hotel rooms in Cabot were full.

Highway department and city workers scraped and sanded the main streets in Cabot and city workers spread some sand on the roads, Cook said.

Side streets were left to be cleared by the sun and traffic.

Cook said he received some complaints and some compliments about street conditions.

Trash pickup in Cabot started Thursday morning and was expected to run through Sunday, weather permitting.

Sgt. Keith Graham, spokesman for the Cabot Police Department, said there were no major accidents during the storm. A few vehicles slid into ditches, but there were no major collisions, he said.

By Thursday evening, power was restored in most of Lonoke. About 600 residents — 50 percent of the town’s population — lost power this week.

The main roads through town were clear. A city employee said that, except for the lack of electricity, the city had no major problems.

Near Carlisle, there were “a bunch of wrecks on the interstate,” said a city employee. Power was out at the service stations at the interstate, but not in the central Carlisle area.

Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin said he had been out with his road crews since the ice and snow started Christmas evening clearing trees that had fallen across roads.

After Gov. Mike Beebe declared the state a disaster area, Erwin made the same declaration for Lonoke County.

Just making the declaration doesn’t ensure that federal money will be available to reimburse part of the cost of cleanup after the storm. But it is necessary to apply, Erwin said.

The judge said he hadn’t had time yet to estimate the cost of the cleanup because he’s been too busy cleaning up.

Erwin said the courthouse was without power for two days.
Jim Kulesa, spokesman for the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, said, “My son is a volunteer fireman at Ward and they were hardly out of their turnouts for two days.”

He said they were helping chainsaw trees out of roadways, helping people having breathing problems or where cars had slid off roads.

The sheriff’s office at the Lonoke County Detention Center was off the grid for two days but a back-up generator kicked in. Having power is important for the security of a modern jail where doors are opened and closed electronically and much of the monitoring is done by video.

Beebe saw the only reported fire in the area. It was on Christmas evening at a home on North Sherry Street.

But Assistant Fire Chief Rick Jackson said Thursday that the cause of the fire had not yet been determined and the occupant of the house had not been located.

Jackson said city firefighters worked with street department employees to clear some fallen limbs, but that the storm caused no major problems in Beebe.

Between 800 and 1,000 people in Beebe — about 50 percent of the town’s population — lost power this week. For once, the weather may help rather than hinder local farmers.

The snow and cold temperatures could drive the winter wheat temporarily into a dormant state, according to Lonoke County chief agricultural extension agent Jeff Welch, but wouldn’t hurt it in the long run.

The snow, rain and ice will help farmers refill the reservoirs they pumped dry last summer keeping their row crops watered during the drought.

He said they are currently pumping water from streams into their ponds.

The water level in the aquifer under Lonoke County, which had dropped five feet between July and September this year, has slowly begun to recharge, according to data compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey at Little Rock.

“We’re at about nine inches below precipitation average for the year, according to John Czarnecki, a ground water specialist with the USGS.

But the snow, ice and recent rains “can do nothing but help,” he said. “Most of the recharge for the aquifer in the Lonoke County area comes from the Arkansas and White rivers.”

Welch said the blanket of snow is just insulation for insects. It won’t hurt them at all.

When the fields dry up a little, farmers will get back in preparing them for spring planting.

“We had the biggest drought ever, but our row crops are 99 percent irrigated,” he said. “It’s one of the best years I’ve seen on the yield.”