Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TOP STORY >> Recovery goes well, melting begins

Leader staff writer

Homes in The Leader’s coverage were largely spared from being without power during last weekend’s winter storm.

Slippery roads made for poor driving conditions, but most of the weekend’s accidents were minor, according to local police.

And kids had a couple of days off from school. But will they pay for it in May or June?

Tori Moss, First Electric Cooperative’s communications coordinator, said Monday, “Fortunately, the cooperative’s Jacksonville district, which includes portions of Pulaski, Lonoke and White counties, did not sustain weather-related damage.”

North Little Rock Electric spokeswoman Jill Ponder said the utility didn’t have any weather-related outages.


Entergy spokeswoman Sally Graham said statewide outages peaked at 13,136 customers. That was how many were in the dark at 11:15 a.m. Friday.

At 11 a.m. Friday, 248 Pulaski County customers were without power, Graham said.

She added that Lonoke and White counties didn’t lose power at the peak of the outages.

Graham continued in an e-mail to The Leader, “The total number of outages our crews and the crews helping us responded to were 40,000 outages over thecourse of the storm. The area that you cover was not in the area where weather conditions created ice-storm outages.”

All three spokeswomen said the utilities they represent were prepared for the inclement weather.

Ponder said, “We did not need additional crews, but they were on standby if needed.”

Moss said, “First Electric Cooperative staged crews and contractors throughout our service area that were prepared to respond in the event of widespread outages due to the winter storm.”

Graham said, “We’ve wrapped up storm outages. We mobilized beginning Wednes-day for a significant ice storm and, thankfully, the weather was on our side, as we did not receive the amount of freezing rain that the national weather forecasting services predicted. We caught a break. But it could have just as easily gone the other way, and we could have received much more.”

According to a news release, Entergy brought in 6,700 additional workers and had about 8,000 total — including their employees and contractors — on hand to help with outages.

Graham continued, “Our motto is prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. Our storm readiness is a team effort that takes days to coordinate the logistics of moving and managing an army of restoration workers and must begin well in advance of a storm. We cannot wait to see what happens.”

Moss said First Electric has offered support to Rich Mountain Electric Cooperative, which is headquartered in Mena, and Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, which is headquartered in Ozark.

On Monday, she said 10 First Electric linemen were helping Rich Mountain, while four were helping Arkansas Valley.

Graham explained how outages happen during ice storms.

She said the weight of the ice on power lines and trees cause outages, but wind and drivers are also factors.

“In some areas we had some wind, where you see galloping lines with the power lines whipping up and down. Ice on power lines, weighing them down, is very problematic. Ice on trees from outside our rights of way also causes outages. In addition to that, members of the public often hit our utility poles because they are driving in very dangerous, wintry conditions.”

Lt. Carl Minden of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office said there were about 17 accidents over the weekend.

Most of those were people sliding off the road, and a few were drivers bumping into other drivers, he said.

Pulaski County deputies helped State Police respond to accidents on I-530, Hwys. 10 and 67/167, Minden added.

Lt. James Kulesa of the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office said deputies with his office also helped State Police with accidents.

“All state agencies work together on this type of thing,” he noted.

Kulesa said Lonoke County deputies responded to a few accidents, but none of them were “major” and there were no fatalities.

Gary Meadows of Allied Ambulance, which services Ward, Austin and four other fire districts, said calls were up slightly because of the winter storm, but handling the increased volume was not difficult. Firefighters helped with calls in Ward and Austin using the Humvees the city bought through a military surplus supplier, he said.

Pulaski County Special School District campuses were closed on Friday and Monday, re-opening Tuesday at the district’s normal start time.

PCSSD spokeswoman Deborah Roush said 300 buses ran through the 730-square-mile district Tuesday with no incidents.

“You can imagine some of those areas stretch into very rural, outlying areas,” she added. If a bus couldn’t make it down a street, the families that lived on that street were called and asked if an alternative arrangement would work, Roush said. For example, some students were asked to meet the bus at the end of the street, she explained.

“Most of our roads were passable,” Roush said, noting that a team including Superintendent Jerry Guess was driving Jacksonville, Bayou Meto, Sherwood and other areas at 3 a.m. Tuesday.

PCSSD has five built-in days, including Good Friday. The other four are at the end of the school year, Roush said.

Using Good Friday is usually a “last resort,” she continued.

Roush said, although a decision has not been made yet and approval from the superintendent is needed, school might let out on June 2 instead of May 30 because of the days it was closed for the inclement weather over the weekend.

As for deciding whether to close, Roush continued, “It is a decision that takes place throughout the entire course of the day, typically days in advance.”

PCSSD considers how likely it is that schools will lose power, transportation difficulties and what other districts are doing, she said.

Planning meetings with all departments are held to make the decision to close or not, Roush said.

PCSSD is partnered with the National Weather Service and local meteorologists, she added.

“We’re briefed very must like Little Rock Airport is,” Roush said.

“We’re always doing the best we can and student safety is always first and foremost,” she added.

Roush said that Operations Director Derek Scott and Maintenance Director Brad Montgomery drove to every school too examine roads and parking lots, determining if parking lots needed sanding.

Roush added that students who were tardy on Tuesday were not penalized.

Cabot schools were closed Friday and Monday.

There was one day, Feb. 17, built into the calendar, Superintendent Tony Thurman said.

“The other day will be added to the end of the calendar,” he continued.

Thurman added, “The decision (to close) was based on a bad weather forecast for last Friday. We were closed on Monday due to road conditions.”

Cabot schools opened late on Tuesday with classes starting on hour later at 9 a.m.

Thurman continued, “Thankfully, there weren’t any reported accidents this morning by the Cabot Police Department or the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office.”

PCSSD and the Cabot School District used Facebook and Twitter to keep parents informed about how the inclement weather was affecting schools.

Beebe schools were closed Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

Superintendent Belinda Shook explained, “We have a 235-mile school district with many gravel roads in shady areas.”

She said the district has one day in January and two days in February built into the calendar.

Shook also noted that a Personnel Policy Committee meeting is set for Thursday afternoon. “I am sure this will be discussed. If we do not miss any more days, we will not add any on to the end of the year,” she continued.

As for how the district decides whether to close school in inclement weather, Shook said, “Several of us drive around and look at the places we know may be the trouble spots. If the roads do not look safe for school buses, we usually make the decision to close.

“Sometimes, we are able to run what we call snow routes that stay primarily on the main roads. Unfortunately, some of our snow routes were also still iced over on Monday afternoon when we checked,” she said.

Lonoke schools were out on Friday and Monday.

Cyndi Perryman, the superintendent’s secretary, said that Friday was built into the calendar, but being closed on Monday may cause the district’s schools to let out for summer one day later. That decision will not be finalized until the winter storm season is over, she added. The last day of school is set for May 29, but the year could end as late as June 4 if doing so is necessary to make sure the district has the number of contract days it must have, Perryman explained.