Let there be light, please!

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By Ben Carlson

Thousands are still without power and thousands more are just beginning a daunting clean-up effort following what is being called the worst ice storm in Kentucky history.

As of Tuesday, around 1,600 Bluegrass Energy and 1,500 Kentucky Utility customers still did not have electricity, forcing residents to deal with freezing nights and continue their search for alternative sources of heat and light.

The storm swooped into Anderson County early last Tuesday, delivering a mixture of rain and sleet. By early Wednesday the storm turned vicious as the temperature cooled just enough to turn the rain into nearly an inch of ice that coated power lines and trees, a nasty cocktail that made travel treacherous if not impossible.

Adding insult to injury, by mid-morning Wednesday, the freezing rain turned to snow, blanketing ice-covered Anderson County with several inches and setting back whatever progress crews had made clearing the roads.

The city and county immediately declared states of emergency, triggering shelters to open as dozens fled from their dark, freezing homes.

The storm also knocked out power to each of the county fire stations. Power was restored to stations 3 and 5 by Monday, and Station 4 regained electricty by Tuesday morning..

Charlie O’Neal, who directs emergency management for the city and county, said the storm didn’t cause as much damage locally as the ice storm of 2003, but is clearly the worst he’s seen statewide.

“It’s the most statewide devastation I’ve seen in my career since I started working in emergency response in 1972 as a volunteer fireman,” O’Neal said.

Following the storm’s onset, O’Neal said about a third of county residents were without power. But as trees continued to sag under the heavy ice and snow, more lines snapped, leaving 50 to 55 percent of the county in the dark.

Fretting an overload of homeowners seeking shelter, O’Neal asked that only those with no alternative places to go use the shelter he opened at the community building, then relocated to the Methodist church near Kroger.

He said about 57 people used that shelter, which remained open Tuesday.

Bulldozers and chainsaws

Although the storm knocked power out to thousands in the city, many never lost power, including Main Street and most businesses.

County residents weren’t nearly as fortunate, especially those in the county’s western end and Glensboro area, where entire rows of utility poles fell like dominos.

“A person down on [Highway] 53 told me they were down there and watched the first pole break,” said farmer Forrest Stevens, who also serves as a magistrate on the Anderson County Fiscal Court. “They watched the whole section of poles fall, one after another. It pulled them down all away across the ridge between Glensboro and [Highway] 62.”

Unlike downed lines in the city, those poles cut across large fields and wooded areas, making them nearly inaccessible to power companies tasked with setting new poles to restore power.

To get utility trucks into that area, Stevens said he put into use two of his bulldozers.

“We’re out pulling trucks into the fields so they can set the poles, then using the bulldozers to pull them back out,” he said.

Stevens said he also pitched in with county road crews who immediately began using chainsaws and dump trucks to remove fallen trees from the roads.

Highway foreman Chip Chambers said his crew and a group of subcontractors hired by the county cleared at least 1,000 trees from county roads during a two-day stretch.

“And that’s not counting the ones the dump trucks just pushed out of the way,” he said. “We started Tuesday night at midnight, doing nothing but clearing a path big enough for cars to get through.”

Chambers said Sunday’s thaw helped clear the most of the remaining ice from county roads, but many still need plenty of work to get them fully reopened.

“The cleanup on the county roads will exceed a month,” he said. “We have to clean up all the debris on the rights of way and clear the roads of all the overhanging trees.”

Fire stations lose power

Although each of the county’s fire stations remained open and functional despite losing power, Fire Chief Mike Barnes said losing electricity did cause some concerns.

Barnes said the main risks were that water loaded in the trucks would freeze, and that trucks returning from calls would not be able to thaw.

To generate power, Barnes said fire crews used generators already on the fire trucks usually used to provide lights and power at fires and accident scenes.

“They were using them for double duty,” he said.

In preparing for the storm, Barnes said he turned the county’s two fire districts into four, each with a chief on hand to deal with a rash of calls.

“We had numerous calls for wires down, motorist assistance, welfare checks and other calls,” Barnes said. “On top of our everyday work, we’ve logged around 1,000 man hours this week, which cost the county nothing because they are all volunteers.

“For a volunteer fire department, I think we performed very well, indeed.”

Storm’s cost still unknown

Mayor Edwinna Baker and Judge-Executive Steve Cornish said it’s too early to tell just how much the city and county will have to spend as a result of the storm.

But because the state and federal governments declared Kentucky a disaster area, FEMA and state funds will help cover the bulk of the expense.

Cornish said FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of money spent beyond the city and county’s normal operating costs. The state will reimburse 13 percent of the remaining 25 percent, leaving taxpayers on the hook for about 12 percent of the storm’s costs.

“That will run into the thousands,” he said.

Cornish said FEMA and state funds will help reimburse the cost of equipment, fuel, overtime and equipment purchased to battle the storm.

“We bought chain saws specifically for this, and hired independent contractors,” he said, adding that the county and city will file reports with FEMA, documenting all of their expenses.

Barnes, the fire chief, said he received a generator from FEMA on Tuesday morning.

Ambulance Director Bart Powell said the storm shelter received 175 new Army cots.

Scam alerts

With any storm comes the opportunistic who attempt to prey on those dealing with a difficult situation.

Powell said there are plenty of rumors floating around of contractors offering to clean up yard debris and telling homeowners that it can be piled along streets because the city will pick it up.

He said that’s not true.

Contractors who clean debris must take it to approved landfill sites, which do not include sites opened by the city and county for use only by residents cleaning up their own yards.

Also not true are rumors that FEMA will reimburse homeowners for generators and other items they purchased during the storm.

“FEMA will not reimburse a private citizen for anything,” Powell said.

Kudos all around

Mayor Edwinna Baker said she is proud of how city personnel responded to the storm and worked as a team.

“They did an outstanding job,” she said. “I’ve never been so impressed, especially with the 911 center. They did a great job fielding calls, especially being short staffed due to illness.”

“I’m tickled to death,” said Cornish. “With the number of people we employ and the amount of equipment we have, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

—Includes reporting by staff writer Shannon Mason Brock.

E-mail Ben Carlson at bcarlson@theandersonnews.com.