February 4, 2009 Edition

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Ice leaves lasting effects

Tom Lockwood and Jeff Brady, both of Hoxie, were among those assisting with cleanup efforts on Monday. Piles of brush could be seen everywhere in the towns of Walnut Ridge and Hoxie and throughout the county.
TD Photo ~ Gloria Wilkerson

Vivian Heyl
Staff Writer

Cleanup has begun in the wake of the ice storm, which decimated most of Northeast Arkansas and left all of Lawrence County without power for the better part of a week. Electricity is gradually being restored throughout the county. Spokesmen for power suppliers said crews are working nonstop to reconnect their customers.

Entergy spokesman David Burnett said that he does not have any firm figures on the percentage of electrical hookups that have been reconnected. "We can't project actual completion figures. They change all the time and most of them are for a larger area than just Lawrence County," he said.

"The power companies have been doing a tremendous job," Walnut Ridge Mayor Michelle Rogers said. "Entergy has contacted me every day during this outage.

"All our emergency services including the fire department and the police department had to use generators to keep operating. The city hall was closed for several days because of lack of power. I stayed in contact with everyone with my cell phone," Rogers said.

Hoxie Mayor Donnie Roberts said the ice storm shut down most of Hoxie. He estimates that only three to five percent of Hoxie has had power restored and that their fire department and police department also relied on generators to operate.

Both mayors agreed that their city employees have operated above and beyond the call to duty.

"It's going to be a long time getting things cleaned up. I expect it to be a month or more before we've got it all done," Roberts said.

"The county has really pulled together, it's been neighbor helping neighbor," said County Judge Alex Latham. In the aftermath of the storm, downed trees and power lines made most of Lawrence County's roads hazardous to travel.

Latham said approximately 75-80 percent of the roads were closed due to damage from the ice storm.

"Our road crews were on the job immediately following the ice storm. They worked late and they worked through the weekend," Latham said.

He said that most roads in the county are passable now and that everyone should be able to get in and out of their homes.

Though street cleanup has begun in most of the towns around the county, it is expected to be a long process.

County officials and mayors met with FEMA and Arkansas Department of Emergency Management representatives on Sunday. Although Lawrence County is included in a disaster declaration, FEMA is not expected to provide any reimbursements for private loss.

FEMA will provide reimbursement to the county and to cities for debris removal Latham said. FEMA has finished their preliminary assessment and may return to the county at a later date.

ADEM has established a call center for affected residents who have received damage to their home due to the storm, had frozen water pipes that burst or lost access to their home. The number is 888-683-2336.

The Lawrence County Communications Center was swamped with calls Monday evening. As power began failing across the county, officials received reports of downed lines and roads blocked by trees and utility polls.

Emergency Services Coordinator Steve Jones said he and his team began ramping up for the emergency prior to Monday." We were 100 percent sure the weather reports were accurate, and we were going to get a bad storm," he said.

When the city of Walnut Ridge lost electricity, the 911 center had to rely on a generator for power. The generator was damaged when a transformer exploded, and for a while emergency calls were routed through Randolph County. The center was moved temporarily to the Walnut Ridge Fire Department and continued to operate there.

"Judge Latham and Keith Freeman took the generator to be repaired and we were able to move back to the courthouse right away," Jones said.

In the midst of the power outages, the 911 tower located at Black Rock, which transmits calls for the sheriff's department, collapsed when trees fell on the guy wires.

"We were able to reroute calls through the fire department's tower and continue to operate," Jones said. "If this had happened five years ago we would not have been in nearly as good shape.

"Our ability to handle emergencies like this ice storm and the flood last year has greatly improved," he added. "Our ability to respond to a disaster is better than it has ever been."

Jones talked about the dedication of the people who work in the communication center. "I can't say enough about our staff. Sherry Sparks and Paige VanBrook have been nonstop in their efforts to help out with this disaster. Our 911 dispatchers were more than ready to fill their posts, and sometimes I had to tell them to go home because there wasn't enough room in the center for all of them."

Jones also said that the county has shown great community spirit. "We fed 1,300 people a day without outside help for the first few days. All over the county fire departments, churches, community centers and other places opened their doors to those who needed a hot meal or shelter."

Though the ice is long gone the disaster continues. Homes, businesses and schools remain dark as they wait for power to be restored.

Restaurants and gas stations were among the first businesses to reopen. Generators made it possible to serve hamburgers or a hot meal to the public or to let customers fill their car with fuel. Some grocery stores were able to open their doors to customers by the end of the week.

Bob Bridges from the Lawrence County Department of Health said his office sent out environmental health specialists to help restaurants and grocery stores determine what food was safe and what needed to be discarded.

"We've gotten a lot of phone calls from individuals about the safety of the food in their own kitchens," he said.

"In general we recommend that food should not be held above 40 degrees for more than two hours," he said. If the food in your refrigerator is no longer chilled it needs to be discarded. Bridges said it is better to toss out the food than to take the chance of getting food poisoning. DHS is expecting a shipment of bottled water and MRE rations, as well as hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and first aid kits, to help those who have lost power and/or water.

Those who have questions about food or water safety can call the health department at 886-3201.

"We've been lucky really," Jones said of the ice storm. "We've had no serious injuries, no deaths and no one has lost their home because of the ice storm."

"What we have been is inconvenienced and we miss our conveniences."

"To end on a positive note, if it can be called that, when this happens again in two or three years it won't be nearly as bad because the trees took all this damage now they won't be falling on power lines the next time."

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