As of Feb. 3, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative CEO Mel Coleman said the co-op has been able to restore power to many of its members. However, there are still about 20,000 members without electricity. Coleman said the peak of those without power during the icy weather was about 34,000, which left about 1,000 of their members with power. The outages have affected all six counties the cooperative serves.
As of 7:43 a.m., Feb. 2, Coleman said District 2, which supports power for Fulton and part of Izard County, had about 3,300 members without power.
Coleman said the widespread outages have clogged up phone lines at the NAEC offices. He said the co-op knows there are power outages across their territory and they are working on it and it is best not to call the offices unless there is an emergency such as a hot power line that is down and has caused a fire. In such instances, NAEC members can also call the sheriff's office or the proper emergency department.
Coleman said NAEC was watching the weather well before the ice storm hit. "It became apparent to us on Sunday night here at North Arkansas Electric (Cooperative) after I confered with John Robinson with the National Weather Service out of Little Rock, who all but predicted the F4 tornado that hit back in (February) of last year. John and I talked on Sunday and he pretty well told me he saw something big coming," Coleman said. "I guess the only good part, looking back, is that we had some preparation time. We had a good 24 hours before the storm came in that we used to prepare. Early Monday morning, we started the preparation of securing hotel rooms, and such as that, and getting our crews ready. We actually sent (workers) home for a little bit (on Jan. 26) to get things ready at their homes because we could see the ice storm coming." Coleman said NAEC started preparing by calling at least 100 men in.
"By Monday afternoon and Monday night when the storm started, the weather service was telling me it was going to be a record-setting storm, of course, the rest is history," Coleman said.
"We were here (NAEC headquarters) all night on Monday night watching it (the storm) and the ice all day on Tuesday and up until midnight Tuesday night," Coleman said.
"I have followed the weather for 30 years and I don't know if I have ever seen a radar that didn't change for 24 hours," Coleman said. "I've seen pockets of precipitation that would produce snow or ice but I've never seen it where it was constant and it was constant for 24 hours from the Texas-Oklahoma border all the way up through just below St. Louis and it was just incredible amounts of precipitation that we were experiencing."
Many NAEC employees didn't leave the office during the ice storm because they knew at any moment they might be needed. "(There were) dozens of us who spent the night here at the office on Tuesday night," Coleman said. "We still have, today (Feb. 2), many of our employees that are sleeping on the floors here in the office. Ever since Tuesday night we've had people staying here at the office."
When NAEC crews finally were able to get out, they saw the heavily ice coated power lines, fallen trees and broken poles and knew they needed more help. "Once the light of day hit us on Wednesday morning, it (the devastation) was apparent," Coleman said. "It was just incredible. It was an incredible catastrophe here in north Arkansas. Literally, what we have experienced over our entire 4,000 miles of service territory is (equal to) the effects of that F4 tornado that we saw back in (February) of last year with the good exception that it didn't tear homes down. But the results to the power lines, the results to the timber, are identical."
"I have men who are working here now who worked in Hurricane Hugo on the East Coast, who worked in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike and they are telling me the same thing with the exception of the fact that the homes and businesses weren't demolished," Coleman said. "The damage to the electric infrastructure and to the timber is the worst that they have seen."
NAEC territory was especially hit hard by the ice storm that stretched from Oklahoma to Kentucky. "I have seen pictures and I have seen all of our service territory," Coleman said. "Every square mile of our service territory was demolished but the worst devastation I've seen, with the exception of the Boothill in Missouri which I have not seen but I have heard (is bad), the worst devastation in Arkansas is right here in North Arkansas Electric's territory."
"We began on Wednesday morning trying to assess the damage," Coleman said. "We had 100 men with us on Tuesday night. We had already called them in ... Now, I'll give you a little comparison. The worst storm that we've ever worked here in north Arkansas maybe would approach 100 men that came to help us in the restoration efforts, whether it was a snow storm or an ice storm, whatever, but we saw immediately on Wednesday morning when we started out, the damage was going to be much worse than that. So, we started trying to line up more help."
"Once we got out and started looking at the damage, we knew we were going to have to have more men and we pretty much divided up the cooperative into two sections," Coleman said. "We have a support section. In that support section we are literally in the hotel business right now, the food service business. We're in the laundry business. We're in the fueling business. We're in the bull dozer business. You name it, we're in it. We're trying to stage everything that we need to support the men that we have."
The other section deals with supervisory personnel. "Instead of three districts, which is what we have now, we're going to make many districts out of each substation and they are going to work independently from the home office," Coleman said. "They will have the authority to go in there and work that substation until (the damage is fixed). This is a technique that was used on the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes and it worked very well and we are now implementing that process here." Coleman said this process will be in operation either Feb. 4 or 5.
Coleman said, as the support section grows and receives enough supplies and other necessities that work crews need, he will send for more people to help get the lights back on to all NAEC members. "Since Wednesday morning, we have been steadily adding crews and you can see them. They're all over the place and from all over the United States. We have been steadily adding crews as we can control them," Coleman said. "The problem you get with men and equipment is you can get more than you can manage."
On Thursday, Coleman expressed his frustration with state government not sending aid sooner. "One of the things that frustrated me early on is that we saw absolutely no National Guard assistance," Coleman said. "I got extremely frustrated on Thursday about that and let my frustrations bend to the proper people. Our counties and our cities, they had their places so full that they needed help. We were in situations where we literally had to spend hours cutting through roads, and we're still having to, to get to our lines to fix them. In my opinion, that's what the National Guard is for. They should have been here on Wednesday and they showed up on Saturday. That is absolutely no one's fault up here. The county judges, and I'm talking about every county judge in our service territory which is six counties, and our county sheriffs have done an outstanding job. But, whoever's in charge of getting the National Guard up here didn't get them here on time."
However, help did eventually come. Some crews from as far away as Michigan have been coming to the NAEC territory to help restore power. Those driving by large parking lots in front of stores, schools and churches may have noticed the large number of white trucks with cherry-pickers parked in them from states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. "The latest figures I have is, probably by the time your newspapers hit the stand, we will have 600 men, which is unprecedented," Coleman said. "The most we've ever had is probably 100 and the average that we have when we have to ask for assistance is probably 50 or 60. This cooperative is now 600 percent larger than it was a week ago in terms of trying to manage the assets that we have. It's a monumental task." According to NAEC, the number of crew members grew to 700 on Feb. 3.
The damage to the power infrastructure could not easily be assessed on foot. Coleman said, usually, when there is a power outage, a line worker goes out to where the suspected problem is and checks to see if there are any breaks in the lines on foot. Coleman said NAEC has estimated there are between 1,000 and 2,000 poles down. An electric infrastructure, which took about 75 years to complete, that's had some major damage done to it, will take some time to fix. With so many power lines down, this task is nearly impossible. "A large portion of (the infrastructure) is going to have to be rebuilt," Coleman said.
However, NAEC has managed to resolve the problem of walking the lines. "We've commissioned two helicopters to fly over our service territory," Coleman said. "This is the first time we've ever tried this."
The helicopters are equipped with GPS satellite tracking devices and laptops. "As the helicopters are flying every line, our engineers are making notes of (downed lines) in their computer programs," Coleman said. "Then they come back and they download it in the office and we immediately know where the problem is and know what type of material it's going to take to fix it."
Coleman said he estimates that some people who live on rural roads might be out of power until the end of February or the beginning of March. Others might have their power back sooner. "I put myself in the place of our members. I would be frustrated. But, on the other hand, I think we've got a great bunch of members. They do understand and some need to understand that we are doing everything we can. This is just an historical, historical catastrophe," Coleman said. "We're dealing with it but it will take time and unfortunately that time is going to be through the month of February."