Mother Nature has not been very kind to Sharp County in the past year. Some are still recovering from the Feb. 5 tornado that ravaged much of the Highland area and other parts of the county. The tornado was quickly followed by floods in March.
Sharp County Judge Larry Brown said the ice storm is the worst so far. "I say that because the damage is so wide spread, it has affected more people than the tornado and flood did," Judge Brown said.
Sharp County and most of North Arkansas went under a winter weather warning at noon Monday, Jan. 26; the advisory was in effect until 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28. While the warning accurately predicted the length of the storm, no one could have imagined the impairment it would cause.
According to several local residents, ice storms are not uncommon in this area during the winter months. "When I heard bad weather was coming our way I figured it would be the normal day or two of ice on the roads, a couple of school closings and then back to normal like always," a Sharp County man said. "I never expected to look out my back door and feel like I was in the middle of a war zone."
The precipitation started late in the afternoon Jan. 26; by the following morning the roads were iced over and driving conditions were unsafe. Throughout the day the rain and sleet were persistant, rarely letting up. According to one Cherokee Village man power outages began around 11 a.m. that morning. But, the worst was yet to come.
As the temperature continued to drop into the evening of Jan. 27, the ice continued to cover everything. Trees became heavy with ice and began to lean and droop, as if they were praying to be saved.
Although the trees fought to stay standing during the storm they began to lose the battle. Several residents said they could hear trees breaking and slowly falling to the ground throughout the night and into the next day. There were few trees that were left undamaged.
According to reports, over 23,500 Arkansas residents were without power by the morning of Jan. 28. The ice clung to power, cable and phone lines, causing them to droop until either the lines themselves or poles they were connected to couldn't take the pressure anymore. Lines were down all over roads, yards and pastures.
One resident said the power outage was no big deal (at first). She had been without power several times, but when she realized there was no phone service she felt slightly panicked. She said not being able to check on her loved ones was scary for her.
The weather finally started to ease through the day on Jan. 28, but the ice remained. It quickly became apparent to most, that this was far from the ordinary ice storm.
There were no gas stations opened for miles around due to the power outage. Propane companies were unable to deliver because their pumps are electric. Walmart was closed as well as most local grocery stores. Resources were limited.
As of Jan. 30, CenturyTel said 15 percent of their remote facilities in the state were running on generators while 20 percent were not operational at all. They estimated that as many as 18,000 customers were without phone and Internet service.
"Our biggest challenges include manning and fueling generators while the commercial power is down," CenturyTel area operations manager for North Arkansas Skip Layne said. "Telephone and DSL lines carry their own power, so if our generators are working, your telephone is working. However, there may still be outages associated with trees and debris damaging cables and poles." Cell phone service was unobtainable for most.
President Barack Obama declared Arkansas and Kentucky Federal Disaster Areas Jan. 29. The president's action makes federal funding available to state and eligible local governments.
According to a news release from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the assistance is authorized under an emergency disaster declaration issued for the state by President Obama. FEMA is authorized to provide emergency protective measures, limited to direct federal assistance, under the Public Assistance Program at 75 percent federal funding.
The assistance is authorized for 48 counties in Arkansas including Fulton, Izard and Sharp counties.
Judge Brown met with a FEMA representative Jan. 30. He said the county has been declared a temporary state of emergency but it will become official after the paperwork is completed.
FEMA is helping with the cost of generators for the county for shelters and businesses. Individual assistance will depend on the amount of damage to structures for those who are uninsured. They will not provide funding for debris clean-up.
Judge Brown said county crews had been out trying to clean-up roadways since the storm hit. "Most of the county roads are blocked with debris. They are trying to open at least one lane of traffic to allow residents passage," Judge Brown said.
The National Guard is assisting and there are currently 90 guardsmen in Sharp County. The guardsmen have been assisting road crews in the clean-up of debris. They also performed a house-to-house check to make sure elderly residents were not in danger and were able to get out.
Judge Brown said they did not find any fatalities but there were some in serious danger from dehydration. "If you know of anyone who needs a welfare check call 9-1-1 so we can dispatch someone out to them," Judge Brown said.
"The fire and police departments, as well as the city and county workers, have been wonderful," Judge Brown said. "They have been out doing welfare checks on people and letting us know about people who are blocked in and need out to get meds and things of that nature."
"Those who get out need to be careful because most secondary roads are going to be one lane of traffic," Sharp County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator (OEM) Gene Moore said. "Also, due to damaged fences, watch for livestock in the roads. Most importantly, try to be patient."
The power companies have been working around the clock to restore power to those who are still without. Businesses started getting their power back Jan. 29, but it was not constant. Cars were lined up for gas.
When Walmart reopened, people raced to get camping supplies to survive in their cold, powerless homes. Tri-County Farm Supply was still without power Jan. 30, but remained open accepting cash only. One of the employees said as soon as they opened their doors they were flooded with customers. They sold out of wood burning stoves and she said chain saws and working supplies were going quickly, as well.
Those businesses who weren't restored with power found generators and some are still relying on them. The banks were closed and due to the power outage customers were unable to obtain cash from the ATM machines. This posed a problem for some because the businesses that were open still did not have service to their credit card machines and were accepting cash only.
Judge Brown had a conference with Entergy Feb. 2. They informed him that they are working 16 hour days and are trying to bring in more crews. "As far as outages, 40 percent of Hardy, 80 percent of Cherokee Village, 90 percent of Ozark Acres and most rural customers are still without power."
According to Mel Coleman with North Arkansas Electric Company (NAEC) there are approximately 18,000 NAEC customers in district 3 that are still without power. District 3 includes Sharp County as well as parts of Izard and Lawrence counties.
Coleman said the damage and outages are too severe to estimate a time frame at this time. He said he is hoping it will all be restored by March 1, if not before.
Those residents who are not on city water have no water because their well pumps are electric. Things people take for granted like bathing and warm meals are impossible for many right now.
Residents have also started looking to hire someone to help clean-up debris on their property, but Judge Brown warns them to be careful. He said if the residents are within the city limits they can check with their local city hall to see if a person has the required licenses and permits.
It is highly recommended to hire someone who is insured. Many people see this as an opportunity to get out and make some money, but with the extensive damage they need to have the proper equipment and knowledge to do it safely, Judge Brown said.
There have been several volunteers in the community helping to clear roadways and check on locals. "This is overwhelming for the local government, we need all of the help we can get," Judge Brown said. "We appreciate it very much."
"As bad as it is for everyone right now, we are glad we live in Sharp County," he said. "We have seen a tremendous sense of community."