Saturday, December 29, 2012

TOP STORY >> Crews still work hard to restore electricity

Leader staff writer

While the area’s first white Christmas in 86 years was certainly beautiful, the aftermath isn’t so wonderful.

Trees laden with snow and a thin layer of ice on electrical lines left hundreds of thousands of Arkansans in the dark.

In some areas, up to 75 percent of the homes were without power. Several people are still waiting for their lights to come back on.

More than 242,500 Entergy customers lost power this week.

On Friday, almost 4,000 Entergy customers in Jacksonville and Sherwood were still in the dark. Nearly 1,000 Entergy customers in Cabot had no power.

About 30,000 First Electric Cooperative members in 17 counties were in the dark this week, including a third of the homes in Cabot. About 18,000 North Little Rock Electric customers in North Little Rock and Sherwood lost power.

Entergy held a press conference Friday afternoon and reported that electricity to 106,000 customers had been restored. Entergy expected restoration for Cabot residents to be finished Friday.

Tori Moss, First Electric’s communications coordinator, said 234 Jacksonville district members were in the dark at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The cooperative’s Jacksonville district includes portions of northern Pulaski, Lonoke, White, Prairie and Faulkner counties. More specifically that district includes Jacksonville, Cabot and Sherwood.

Moss said First Electric crews were working overnight and expected to restore power to the Jacksonville district by today. The rest of its members statewide were expected to have power by this evening.

Jill Ponders of North Little Rock Electric said Friday that about 200 people in Sherwood and North Little Rock were still in the dark. The utility planned to complete repairs Friday.

The voice mail for Entergy spokeswoman Julie Munsell was full and she did not respond to an e-mail from The Leader by press time.

The utility planned to complete restoration in Searcy today, according to its Facebook page. Work in Little Rock and surrounding areas was expected to finish up by Tuesday.


Entergy brought in 100 out-of-state workers in preparation for the snow. After the storm, the company requested 4,900 additional linemen and support workers from other parts of Arkansas and other states. The crews came from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Moss said First Electric’s outages were not in large groups, Moss said.

Larry Harp, First Electric’s vice president of operations, said, “They are smaller outages that affect anywhere from a few dozen people to one individual, but restoring each one can be just as time-consuming as the more widespread outages.”

Moss said the utility has “an aggressive right of way program that encompasses the cooperative’s 10,000 miles of lines throughout 17 counties.”

Tim Felty, right of way maintenance supervisor, said, “All lines are maintained on at least a five-year schedule. In more populated areas, First Electric employees and contractors maintain the 15-foot clearance on either side of the line on a four-year schedule. We also have an extensive removal program of trees that grow inside the right of way.”

He continued, “In addition, First Electric inspects 10 percent of the more than 200,000 wood poles throughout the five service areas each year. We do this to identify and remove weakened poles from our system.”


No one seemed prepared for the culprit that caused the outages — up to a foot of snow in some local areas.

According to the National Weather Service, Austin in Lonoke County received 12 inches of snow and Jacksonville had 10.5 inches.

Little Rock and North Little Rock saw 10.3 inches and parts of White County had 13 inches of the white stuff.

The most snow — 15 inches — fell in Garland County.

Not only was it the whitest Christmas here ever, Tuesday was the eighth snowiest day on record. The snowiest was March 6, 1875, when 12 inches fell, according to the National Weather Service.

On Dec. 25, 1926, the last time the state had a white Christmas, nine inches of snow accumulated.

People without power had a few options.

They were bunking down with relatives who had power, going to local warming centers, booking hotel rooms, using their fireplaces, and using gas stoves and ranges to cook and keep the cold at bay.


Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said 50 to 60 people without power found shelter at the Jacksonville Community Center, 5 Municipal Drive.

“We’re hunkered down,” the mayor said.

Fletcher said he appreciates the Red Cross, Second Baptist Church, Wendy’s, First United Methodist and others who helped provide meals and other necessities to the refugees of the freak snowstorm.

“We’re trying to make people comfortable. We’ve got everything taken care of through Saturday (today),” the mayor said on Thursday.

Fletcher said the city’s street department was removing debris from, scraping and salting arterial roads like West Main and Gregory streets and Marshall Road. Some employees are working 12-hour shifts to get everything done as quickly as possible, he said.

The mayor said, “It’s going to be a chore. There are going to be several people who don’t have the money to clean up. Side streets that still have shade are going to be more dangerous (to drive).”

Fletcher said, “The big thing I’m really proud of is our sanitation department.” But people need to remember to make sure the lids of their cans are shut, Fletcher said.

He said the trucks wouldn’t empty those overfilled containers because trash spills onto the road when the mechanical arm lift them. He said all residents could have their trash picked up by today.


Several residents turned to local hotels for warm beds.

Shanna Washington of Comfort Inn said Thursday, “We are swamped. We think we have an opening and a few minutes later we don’t.”

She said people who didn’t have power at their homes occupied 53 of the hotel’s 59 rooms. She said most of the guests were Jacksonville residents, but a few came from Cabot, North Little Rock and Little Rock.

The Days Inn’s 40 rooms were full and the Econo Lodge had only 10 of its 65 rooms available Thursday.

Jay Patel, the front desk manager at the Cranbury Inn, said, “We have been very busy.” He said all 52 rooms were occupied, but guests who didn’t have electricity at their homes occupied only 18 rooms.

Lisa Fields, the front desk manager at Best Western in Sherwood, said, “We’re completely booked up.” She said families without power probably occupied 50 of their 60 rooms.


Hotels weren’t the only businesses being slammed by people in need.

A manager at the Dollar General in Gravel Ridge said the store had been very busy. She didn’t want to give The Leader her name.

The manager said, “We’ve been nonstop at the registers. As far as having stuff on the shelves, that has been a problem.”

She said the store was out of bread, but it did have milk because that supplier was able to get there to restock this week.

A representative with the Walmart Supercenter in Jacksonville said all of the managers were unavailable because they were working at the registers. The Leader left a message with her but did not hear back from anyone by press time.

The phone lines for Kroger and Knight’s in Jacksonville were busy. A phone call to the Walmart Supercenter in Sherwood went unanswered.

The bread shelves at the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Sherwood were mostly empty Thursday morning. Jacksonville’s Walmart was out of milk.

A Sherwood worker said they would be restocking later that day. A manager at the store said customers were buying a little bit of everything.


But treacherous roads prevented a lot of people from arriving at the stores and shelters.

Billy Hall of Sherwood Towing and Ivy Hall Wrecker Service in Jacksonville said, “Most of ours were people in the ditch. It’s unbelievable. Some places we couldn’t get to. Stay off the road or slow down.”

He said his companies have helped with 10 to 12 accidents and it took a couple of days to recover some vehicles.

“We just have to do what we can do,” Hall said.

Johnny James of Jacksonville Tow and Recovery said there were three wrecks on Thursday before 4 p.m.

He said people have been getting stuck and colliding with other cars. “You just can’t tell (how many accidents there were),” James said.

Teresa Hensley of Ryno Towing in Jacksonville said, “We pulled out one patrol and an ambulance that was stuck in the snow.” Other accidents the company has responded to were on the I-440 bridge and in Cabot.

Hensley said, “It’s been kind of dangerous (for our wreckers to travel). Most of the time it’s been passersby helping people out.”