Issue February 4, 2009

Apocalypsnow

Digging out of the worst winter storm in Louisville history

Just after 4 o’clock on Friday, beaming like all of us under the first rays of sun all week, the volunteers at Walnut Street Baptist Church are changing shifts, which means the scene near the entrance to the temporary shelter is unusually frenzied with the movement of bodies and the queer language of a sudden interruption in everything. It has been three days since an ice-and-snow storm froze the city, state and region; today, officials are saying in terms of the sheer number of people affected, this is the worst natural disaster in Kentucky history.

A man exits the nearby elevator with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He signs the log sheet taped to the door and makes his way to the parking lot, where he joins a small group of smokers. One must sign the log sheet to go outside; after all, this is a tight operation. Has to be.

Three people get onto the elevator as cigarette man passes through, smiling and shaking their heads at each other because their stories are basically the same: They are among the estimated 172,000 Louisvillians without electricity today (it fluctuates daily; as of press deadline, the figure was 31,000). Without electrical power, and with temperatures in the teens every night since Tuesday, the only way you’re staying home is with a 20-below bag. There will be those who leave a generator too close to the house or heat a room with a charcoal grill — a total of six dead in Louisville due to the storm. Kentucky’s frontier spirit can be a wicked mix of empowerment and obstinacy.

Meanwhile, two young women, probably mid-twenties, sign in at the front kiosk. They’re volunteers for the Red Cross, the agency running shelter operations across the state, where as of today, around 700,000 households and businesses are without electricity. There’s a middle-aged man sitting in a chair nearby, talking with another man of similar age who is pushing a young child in a stroller.

“Chili tonight,” he says to stroller man.

“Yeah, it was cold in my house. I mean—”

“No, we’re eating chili tonight.”

Laughs.

“Hey,” seated man says, turning toward one of the volunteers. “Those are nice boots.”

The boots are trendy, maybe Campers, a black leather base swirled with bright highlights. They seem foreign in this setting; they shouldn’t have salt, water and whatever other winter storm detritus clinging a couple inches up. On the subject of the boots, her friend agrees with seated man — “I know, right?” — who is no longer seated but standing, perhaps a little uncomfortably, as more people file in around him.

This is how it goes if you have no electricity and nowhere to go: You must adapt to an environment completely foreign, and you are not ready, no matter your preparations.

Families huddle around the few TVs with adults clutching cell phones, awaiting word of power at home. They use phones set up by the Red Cross to call relatives and friends, and wonder, often with a hint of desperation, if the power’s back on. In a couple hours, volunteers will serve chili in Styrofoam bowls to 376 people. Tonight, 285 people will sleep here on military-style cots, occupying the first three floors of the building.

Here on the first floor, just outside the kitchen, is the area where health department officials have sequestered the sick and injured, who’ve grown in numbers so substantially today that volunteers and Metro officials had to expand the area. On the second and third floors are the family rooms, one a gymnasium with a TV and probably 100 forest-green cots. There are many rooms, big and small, filled with cots and sleeping people, with about three feet of relative privacy on either side.

Remarkably, most are serene and optimistic.

“I think for the most part people are doing OK,” says Kris Billiter, a youth minister at Walnut Street Baptist Church. “Most people get what this is, you know. Most people are positive.”

Roxanne Jones, who lives downtown, is seated at a round table on the first floor. She and everyone else here have just watched Mayor Jerry Abramson, Gov. Steve Beshear and a swarm of local and national media come, shake some hands, and, just as abruptly, go. She says the air here seems crowded and heavy with germs. Still, “the people are nice, everything is convenient for you,” she says. “It’s cold at home.”

David Swinney is here for a quick warm-up and some news about the restoration efforts.

“I just come because I don’t have no television, anything of that nature,” he says. “I’m not used to being home alone. I’m used to being home with my TV.”

Brian Bigelow arrived Thursday night, after he started seeing his breath inside his downtown apartment. He’s been awake all night — with so many people coming, going and moving around, slumber is difficult. Bigelow told Beshear he thought the people who needed help the most weren’t hearing about it, and asked whether there would be door-to-door runs in the future (Beshear activated the full 4,600-person National Guard last weekend, and the runs began). The governor told him to talk to the mayor, so he did.

“The people who need this the most aren’t hearing about it,” Bigelow told Abramson as he and some of his staff walked into the shelter. The mayor paused briefly, nodded in acknowledgement, and moved forward.

And the train, as it were, keeps on rolling.

The corner of Eastern Parkway and Norris Place is a rather epic mess: Utility poles have snapped in half, leaving a series of heavy-gauge wires laid out across three front yards. The intersection is littered with tree rubbish. The lighter lines that have fallen tend to hide in the packed snow and ice.

Crews have been working here since Wednesday, and the one Friday comprised line workers from Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Like the windstorm restoration, crews are here from all over, including North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. They work constantly; shifts are 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Louisville Gas and Electric has rented hotel rooms and established temporary housing for the workers. As soon as one goes to a site, the bed is cleaned and the next man or woman tries for shuteye.

LG&E doesn’t necessarily know where lines are down. When a full circuit goes out — like what happened to a lot of neighborhoods — a centralized computer system notifies workers, although it does not offer a precise location. According to Keith McBride, a fire and security investigator for E.ON. U.S., the German-based owner of LG&E, workers use calls from customers and EMS to zero in on an outage location.

Power outages peaked Thursday night, leaving about 205,000 households and businesses dark and cold, according to LG&E. Across the state, more than 700,000 were without power at this saga’s worst point. Nearly 60 water treatment facilities were down statewide, leaving more than 200,000 without water. Water mains in Louisville continue to break regularly, sometimes more than a handful a day.

As of press time, at least a quarter of a million households and businesses remained without power across the state; 31,000 in Louisville. Every day since the storm last Tuesday, LG&E has told customers they should expect to wait at least 7-10 days for a full restoration of power.

Western Kentucky appears to have been hit particularly hard. According to Chris Hermann of E.ON. U.S., which also owns Kentucky Utilities, some counties experienced full blackouts. The conditions were so treacherous that KU considered using military tanks to transport its equipment to hard-hit rural areas.

More than 20 people in Kentucky have been confirmed dead as a result of the storm, many of carbon monoxide poisoning from what are commonly referred to as alternative heating devices: gas-powered generators, kerosene heaters; in other words, machines that emit toxic fumes that will kill you in close proximity. Public officials, including both the city and suburban fire chiefs, have discussed the danger in this extensively during the twice-daily press briefings. Still, craziness can parade as sensible when you’re shivering to the core.

Like many things in the immediate wake of a natural disaster, cost estimates remain vague. Beshear said he spoke directly with President Obama Wednesday evening, and the White House fast-tracked an emergency declaration so that federal aide could begin to come to the state.

The governor said Monday the state would spend more than $45 million in cleanup and restoration. He and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd, asked the Obama administration to grant the state major disaster status, which would initiate a full federal cost share.

“Right now we’re just concentrating our entire attention on getting everything out there that needs to be for our people,” Beshear said.

Abramson said Monday he expects the city to exceed $2.174 million in overtime and extra-budget costs, which would trigger federal reimbursement (via the Federal Emergency Management Agency) of 87 percent of the cost. The city spent $3.4 million cleaning up after the windstorm of September 2008; so far, it has received about $1 million in federal reimbursement.

Keeling said LG&E’s share of the cost would be “within the ballpark” of what the company spent cleaning up after the windstorm, or in the $25 million range. The utility company is asking the Public Service Commission for a rate increase to cover the cost of that restoration.

Last Wednesday morning, an intriguing group emerged on Facebook called “Bury the Damned Power Lines Already.”

Within six days it had 1,023 members. You have to assume that as the power comes back on, that will only increase.

On Sunday I posted a request for interviews. Within a couple hours I had more than 20 replies.

“I am willing to pay for [burying power lines] if it means I won’t have to pack another bag, eat out when I don’t want to, or sleep on another couch because of our power system,” Jo Ann Donaldson wrote.

“I don’t really know the schematics involved with burying the power lines but I definitely think the city should look into it, especially since we’ve been hit so close together,” wrote Virginia Allen.

“I’m an electrical engineer who used to work on billion-dollar weapons systems, which we built instead of spending money on infrastructure projects like burying the damned power lines,” James Moore wrote. “Where did we spend all of that defense money? A lot of it in Europe … guess what they do with their power lines over there?”

Pam Harrison wrote: “The expense of moving our cities into the 21st century far outweighs the implications of dealing with further disasters as global warming makes disasters like this one more commonplace.”

Such a movement would naturally come during a time of crisis, when anger and despair tend to surge. But the underlying logic is compelling: If the combined costs of cleanup for the windstorm and this one exceed $50 million, and at least eight Louisville deaths are attributed to electricity mishaps and/or power outages resulting from those storms, then at what point is the current system more costly and dangerous than changing?

Keeling says LG&E installs electrical wires underground in new developments, so long as the developer wants to incur the extra charge and, one assumes, pass it on to buyers. “[Burying lines] is very viable and we’ve been doing that for some time now,” he says.

The process they use is called duel trenching, which basically means the utility company shares a trench (and the cost) with cable or phone companies. Keeling says they could bury wires with gas lines as well; LG&E has not been doing that during its ongoing gas-line improvement project.

However, the cost of burying existing overhead wires is “exorbitant,” Keeling says. It would cost about $1 million per mile, and in some cases — such as the bohemian district of Bardstown Road — excavation would be a logistical nightmare.

Asked whether political pressure could push LG&E to consider burying lines, Keeling says the utility would have to work with the Public Service Commission to begin a study. He says burying lines is a “consideration” when the company has to replace aged electrical infrastructure, but LG&E tries to keep those costs low in order to avoid further rate increases. (The company’s last rate increase was 2004; before that, 1990. There is one pending at the PSC.)

After a devastating ice storm in 2002, Duke Energy Carolinas and the North Carolina Utilities Commission considered a plan to bury lines in susceptible areas. The study concluded that such a project would cost $41 billion, take 25 years to complete, and result in a 125 percent rate increase.

RELATED

Calamitous weather in Louisville: A brief history

Trees: The root of the problem? 

Photo Gallery: The Great Louisville IceAge 2009

RESOURCES

LG&E Storm Updates — maps showing current outages, contact info, etc.

Metro Government — for debris removal schedules, contact info, etc. 

Rep. John Yarmuth — safety, food, shelter, etc.