Last Monday morning, metro Tulsa awoke in the dark.
Where did the time go? Where's the alarm clock?
Looking to see what time it was, they couldn't find the familiar, brightly lit digital alarm clock numbers to tell them how much longer they could take refuge from the sudden, uncomfortable cold beyond their blankets. The Christmas trees they lit before going to bed were no longer twinkling.
Their children's nightlights had extinguished. The familiar white noise of buzzing refrigerators had gone silent, leaving only the outside sounds of freezing drizzle and the eerie crackling of falling branches.
The morning's loss of electricity shouldn't have been such a surprise. We were warned days before the storm began late Saturday night. Perhaps we thought it was the usual Storm Central Tracker Over-The-Top weather hype.
But this was The Big One.
It came in stages with some of the older neighborhoods going down first--then coming back--then going out again.
they were in the clear. Many Tulsans lost power Sunday evening as freezing rain descended in sheets, tearing down power lines and splitting trees in half, carrying their dismembered limbs into the streets and atop cars and houses.
They knew a storm was coming, but even so, when they awoke in the dark and surveyed the damage, most were in awe of what they saw. Tulsans have weathered winter storms before. We all thought we were pretty brave last year for surviving more than a couple snow storms, but last week's events were unlike anything we had seen before, at least in terms of the number of people affected.
We considered ourselves lucky if the falling debris missed our cars or houses. We went to work hoping we'd have light and warmth there, but most of us were disappointed. Without work to do, TV to watch or chores to finish, all most could do Monday was listen to limbs break and fall outside.
That's all most could do, anyway.
That doesn't apply to the almost 5,000 people, mostly from out of town, who have been working late nights and long hours to reverse the damage.
"This is a pretty massive undertaking," said Stan Whiteford, spokesman for the Public Service Company of Oklahoma.
"We've never seen power outages on this scale," he added.
In fact, upon touring the city with Mayor Kathy Taylor last week, Gov. Brad Henry said the storm "could very likely be the most expensive disaster in the state's history."
He estimated that the public and private costs from the damages could very well exceed $200 million.
And he'd know.
If there's anything at which the Governor of Oklahoma should excel, it's assessing disaster damage.Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, it seems that there's always one biblical plague following after another: if we're not frozen over and plunged into darkness, we're on fire, ravaged by tornadoes, drowning in floodwaters, bombed, withering up for lack of rain or getting beaten by Boise State or Oregon.
Last week's ice storm occasioned the ninth major disaster declaration for the state this year, making Oklahoma the historic record-holder in the nation.
Presumably learning a lesson from Katrina, Pres. George W. Bush wasn't shy about declaring a state of emergency in Oklahoma early after the lights went out, within a day of Lt. Gov. Jari Askins' request (Henry was speeding home from Hawaii at the time, where he was attending the dedication of the U.S.S. Oklahoma Memorial at Pearl Harbor).
Citing a report issued last week by the state Department of Emergency Management, EMSA spokeswoman Tina Wells told UTW that 23 people lost their lives because of circumstances directly related to the storm.
Car accidents were responsible for 13, house fires for 8, and two died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Four of those people were in the Tulsa area, she said.
One of them died when a utility pole fell and crushed his vehicle, and three died in fires.
While the number of deaths related to carbon monoxide poisoning is comparatively small, Wells said it was the most significant health concern during the period of emergency.
In the Tulsa area, about 80 people were evaluated for carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of running gas generators indoors or in garages, or from using gas-powered stovetops or ovens for home-heating instead of cooking, she said.
"That's obviously not what they're designed for," Wells added.
Those and other problems led to "an unprecedented, high emergency call record" on Monday and Tuesday of last week, she said.
Each day saw more than 230 calls for emergency medical treatment, Wells said, compared to the daily norm of about 150.
Most of the calls were for breathing problems experienced by people with pre-existing lung ailments exacerbated by exposure to the dry, freezing air, she said.
Meanwhile, local utility companies might still be hard at work to restore power by the time this article goes to print.
It'll still be awhile before the state and federal governments start crunching numbers and cutting checks for relief and reimbursement of the massive expenses incurred to restore the status quo, though.
Until then, local governments, agencies and utility companies are relying on their own resources--something the PSO spokesman said is nothing new, and plans were already in place in the event of such an emergency, unprecedented though it was.
The closest comparison would be the ice storm of last January, which took out the electricity of around 50,000 customers in McAlester and the surrounding area, which cost about $30 million to restore, Whiteford said.
This time around, he said about 250,000 PSO customers were sent back to the 19th century with the falling of ice-encrusted tree branches.
It's too early, he said, to calculate the precise cost of this round of repairs, but even though this season's meteorological menace has affected about five times as many people, Whiteford said that doesn't necessarily mean the cost will translate accordingly (at least, that's as far as the power-restoration slice of the estimated $200 million pie goes).
Much of the cost of last season's power restoration came from replacing broken poles, he explained, but this recent storm didn't cause nearly as much pole damage.
In fact, he said, this season so far has nothing, in terms of intensity, on last year's McAlester-centered winter wonderland.
What it lacked in intensity it more than made up for in scope, though.
"This storm's icing was lighter, but it hit a much more heavily-populated area," said Whiteford.
By now the storm that plunged much of Oklahoma into darkness is dumping on New England, but we didn't have nearly the warning they had from the western states from which it blew in.
Of course, the weathermen told us it was coming with the usual amount of notice, but Whiteford said he and the rest of folks that make up PSO didn't know what kind of impact it would have until it was already having it.
"It hit right in Tulsa and seemed to stay there. As the storm continued to hit for two days, we weren't surprised as it continued to ice up the metro area," he said.
As a result, as everyone has experienced firsthand, all of Tulsa was hit pretty hard in terms of power outage, he said.
"I'd be hard pressed to say any particular area was hit any harder than any other area," said Whiteford.
However, communities to the immediate south of Tulsa got off pretty easy, as Whiteford noted that the number of power outages "dropped off dramatically" just south of the Creek Turnpike.
With the exception of Okmulgee, that is.
Whiteford said Jenks and Glenpool had comparatively few outages, compared to hundreds in Okmulgee, for some reason.
The real cost for this season's round of electrical repairs won't be in material, but in manpower.
While PSO's normal manpower levels for the Tulsa area number in the "several hundreds," Whiteford said, the workforce tackling the latest plunge into darkness numbers about 4,950.
"It's pretty unprecedented--the number of people who came in here to help," he said.
He said there are 2,750 line workers, 2,200 tree trimmers, plus about 600 support staff from local PSO offices, who have been drafted for logistical support and for guiding the thousands of out-of-towners who've descended from across the U.S. to bring Tulsa back to life.
Also, about 2,000 vehicles are employed in the restoration efforts.
For a more localized electrical outage crisis, the Tulsa-area PSO would call in workers from other parts of the state, but since all of Oklahoma and parts of surrounding states had their own share of problems to tackle, Whiteford said additional manpower had to be summoned from as far away as Ohio and Virginia to restore electricity to Tulsa and the surrounding area.
All utility companies, Whiteford explained, belong to a mutual-assistance network from which they can draw additional resources for emergencies like Oklahoma's ice storm.
To accommodate the massive influx of workers, the Tulsa County Fairgrounds has since been unofficially renamed "PSO City," as Expo Square served as the temporary home of the emergency workforce.
It's come to somewhat resemble a military command post, complete with tacticians and field medics.
Wells said EMSA has paramedics stationed there to patch up workers returning from the fields with lacerations and burns resulting from their combat against the elements, rogue electrical lines and fallen tree debris.
The vast majority of Tulsans can probably already imagine what the electrical work crews are going through to get the lights turned back on (which is probably much more trying than the X-Box withdrawals a certain whiney reporter has had to endure).
Along with the cold, wet and icy conditions work crews had to weather, they also had the daunting task of getting through all the fallen tree debris to get to broken power lines underneath, which are often tangled in the branches.
After clearing the way, the next step is to assess the damage, he said.
"Do we need to replace the pole? Just the cross-arms? Is the transformer still attached? Is it damaged? Are the insulators and connectors and other pieces of equipment still useable?" Whiteford listed as some of the assessments to be made.
Sometimes "work-arounds" are installed, which is what PSO workers call quick fixes that safely get power back on, with a mind that workers will have to come back when they have more time to make more permanent repairs.
And all this has to be done in the elements--in the very conditions that flayed massive, historic trees to their roots.
Whiteford said workers in the bucket trucks had to deal with them icing up every few minutes during the first few days of recovery fun, which likely wasn't as enjoyable as it sounds, since heights and slippery surfaces don't always mix very well.
Mud created by the melting ice also complicated efforts, he said.
"Sometimes, it was so muddy and boggy, we had to use four-wheelers to get into some rural areas," Whiteford said.
At the time of this writing, though, he said there were no major injuries to any of the workers.
"We have thousands of people out there working in some very trying conditions, so safety is a huge, huge concern," Whiteford said.
Steve Penrose, PSO's regional manager, managed the emergency response as the "commanding general," summoning the additional manpower and laying out the strategy.
Steve Baker, PSO's Tulsa-area district manager, acted as the "field general," so to speak, by overseeing what PSO calls its "circuit generals."
The Tulsa metro-area was divided into four quadrants, each with its share of circuit generals who oversaw the work crews of tree-trimmers and service technicians.
Whiteford said the first priority for power restoration was emergency services and hospitals, which were restored within the first few hours last Monday.
Next were city services, like water and sewage treatment, and then police and fire stations.
"Next were critical business infrastructure needs," he said, such as restoring power to gasoline pipelines.
Once all the crucial infrastructure and service needs were met, the work crews focused on "getting large numbers of customers on with one fix," he said, by tackling those particular problems affecting the largest numbers of people.
An example was the Cherokee Village neighborhood at 14th and Garnett, where the repair of a single feeder line restored power to the entire neighborhood.
Whiteford said the neighborhood sustained so little damage because it had recently been converted to underground power lines, safe from falling tree debris.
Next, and last, Whiteford said crews turned their attentions to those problems affecting only one or a handful of residences.
"Those people in the most remote locations, with only one problem only affecting them--well, it's unfortunate, but they'll be the last to get power restored," he said.
Whiteford said the vast majority of residences in the Tulsa area should have had their power restored over the weekend, at the latest, while those fewer scattered, isolated customers might still be waiting by the time this goes to print.
Despite the hardships, though, he said PSO hasn't heard too much complaining. There were the occasional people, though, who somehow thought they were the only ones going through a tough time.
"We get some complaints, but not a whole lot," he said.
"Most people are being patient and know we're working as hard as we can," Whiteford added.
He said the substantial costs of housing, feeding and paying those thousands of workers are coming out of PSO's pocket right now, but probably won't be passed on to the customers.
"We'll probably offset the cost by taking emissions credit value over against the storm costs," he said.
When answered with a dumbfounded "Huh?", Whiteford explained that power companies are granted a certain amount of emissions allowances by the federal government, which can be used, sold or traded, and since PSO normally doesn't use all of them, they'll probably be sold to cover repair costs.
That's contingent upon the Oklahoma Corporation Commission's approval, anyway.
Weeks from now, when the costs have been assessed, Whiteford said PSO will seek recovery of those costs from the Commission, probably through the emissions credit.
If, for whatever reason, the Commission doesn't approve it, Whiteford said there's a possibility those costs could be passed on to customers in the form of a future rate increase.
Or, state and federal disaster relief funds could cover much of the cost.
PSO is weeks away from knowing what the bill will even be, though, much less how to pay it.
Meanwhile, as the augmented PSO crews were braving the elements to get Tulsans back to their heated homes, TVs and other creature comforts, some rumors circulated about a little favoritism at work in the early days of the outage.
Many people noticed that QuikTrip had all of its stores up and running soon if not immediately after the storm wiped out much of the area's electricity, which fed suspicions that the chain got the lion's share of the initial restoration attentions.
Well, to set the record straight--it just isn't true.
The reason all of QT's stores were up-and-running is that they had generators on-hand for just such an occasion.
When asked about the rumors of an unfair QT restoration monopoly, QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh chuckled a bit and said, "Well, we don't want to apologize for being smarter than our competition."
At the time of this writing, 28 of the chain's 55 stores were without electrical service, but were running on generators.
Meanwhile, the company's division office had been without power since the storm hit the previous Sunday, Thornbrugh said.
Hopefully, by the time this goes to print, it and the rest of Tulsa will be restored to full power--that is, if another forecasted round of winter weather doesn't set us back to square one.
By the time this goes to print, the question will have been answered, but Whiteford said it's likely the trees have been trimmed sufficiently by the previous storm so they're unlikely to lose more branches.
Or, he said, they've been weakened so they're more likely to crack under the strain of another storm.
So, once again, we'll all find out together.
A Warm Place. The Red Cross opened a shelter at First Baptist Church, 4th and Detroit, last Sunday evening. By the following evening, 270 people filled the shelter.
Cold Hands, Warm Hearts
Ice Storm 2007 draws the best out in each of us. Right?
By Katie Sullivan
If you happened to be curled up in blankets and reading the December 17, 2007 issue of Time magazine by candlelight during last weekend's ice storm, you may have come across a familiar name. In his article "Why They Love Huckabee," author David Von Drehle refers to Republican Presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson's battle for the Iowa caucuses. He refers to Robertson's strong surge for the state as something "which melted away faster than a Tulsa ice storm."
What timing!? We're actually famous for these devastating storms. With Oklahoma residents and businesses experiencing at least a short period without power, surely a frigid evening spent by a fire, your chilled breath the only motion in the room, wasn't too foreign.
It seems everyone has a story to tell, a picture to show. We were all drifting in the same iced-over boat here. Yet some Tulsans went the extra mile to ensure the safety and comfort of those in need. So let's look on the bright, dry, non-frozen side of things. Did Ice Storm 2007 have a way of bringing folks together?
Out on a Limb
A glance down almost any residential street revealed neighbors outdoors clearing the streets of limbs and chain sawing what remained of trees that resembled split bananas. With the sounds of falling branches and transformers blasting off in hues of green and blue for the moon heard from every direction, simply stepping outside was a brave maneuver.
"I had three neighbors stop by my place to make sure I was okay, one of whom came before the storm even hit. You don't see that too often these days," said Louise Tennis, a Tulsa resident living in the same house for more than 55 years.
The 83-year-old, who lives in Midtown, said she hadn't seen a storm cause this much destruction in more than 20 years. She was quick to snap some photos of her roof so her insurance company could verify the damage. At least two large limbs rested comfortably on her house.
"I've seen tornados tear down the street and none of them caused devastation like this," she said. "This is very, very unusual."
Governor Brad Henry shared the same astonishment while observing the damage to a Tulsa neighborhood last Thursday. He said Tulsa had never seen such widespread damage from an ice storm.
"In 2000 and 2002 we had an ice storm that put 250,000 without power. This year, at one point or another, 650,000 experienced no power. Luckily, that number is dropping fast," he said.
"The important thing is to check on your neighbors, friends and the elderly," he continued. "The individuals of Oklahoma have done a great job responding to the needs of others during this storm."
The city has identified waste sites for residents and businesses to dispose of their fallen tree limbs. Debris can be taken to one of two Greenwaste sites. The site locations are 56th Street North between North Mingo Road and U.S. 169, and also West 71st Street, west of the Arkansas River and east of South Elwood Ave. Tulsa residents with a driver's license or a utility bill with a City of Tulsa address can drop off tree debris for free. The sites are open from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week.
Another option is for residents to place their fallen limbs behind the curb of their property. Call the Mayor's Action Center at 596-2100 to be placed on a list and the City will come by during the next several weeks to take away the branches. Please remember, and remind others, that fallen power lines are considered live and it is dangerous to handle tree limbs and fences around them.
The unselfish spirit of the season was alive and well at First Baptist Church, 4th and Detroit. The church never lost its electricity because its power lines are underground. The Red Cross opened a shelter in the church's gym last Sunday evening. With no buses running at the Greyhound station, 20 to 25 travelers wandered across the street to warm up with coffee and blankets. By last Monday evening, 270 people filled the shelter.
"But we haven't had to turn anyone away," said Pastor Deron Spoo. "The Red Cross has provided all the supplies and manpower."
Spoo has been making routine trips downstairs to make sure the small children and babies are well taken care of.
"For young families, this is a less than ideal situation and we want to help them stick it out and keep out of the cold," he said. "Even to stop in for 30 minutes to warm up is well worth it."
Church members and other volunteers have been calling the church to assist the Red Cross. Tulsa resident Glenn Zannoti works with the Tulsa Area United Way, 14th Street and Boulder, and because the building had no power, the volunteer was quick to find another way to assist those in need of food and warmth. He spent the early part of last week bouncing from one shelter to the next.
"We basically just do as we're told-wherever, whenever," Zannoti said. "I don't have power at my house, but I'm not too worried. This is about helping the community, the less fortunate. I've been lucky."
It is this spirit, this modesty that makes a stressful situation better for everyone involved. The more lending hands there are, the sooner Tulsa's streets and neighborhoods safely return to normal. Until then, let's be thankful for our friends and families, for city workers, and for whoever invented traffic lights.
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