Cleveland Utilities on Monday dispatched a seven-man emergency team from its Electric Division to West Tennessee to assist the crippled Memphis Light, Gas and Water utility in restoring power to more than 30,000 customers.
Like many sections of America’s Mid-South, Memphis was coated Sunday by a solid sheet of ice from a winter storm (labeled “Titan” by some weather outlets) that left heavy limbs, and in some cases entire trees, crashing through power lines.
The Cleveland and Bradley County area avoided the bitter-cold temperatures and treacherous ice, and instead received a steady rainfall Sunday night and Monday morning. In some areas locally, sustained wind gusts were reported to have reached 40 mph.
Widespread power outages were reported in Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky in the South, and into the Northeast and East Coast where heavy snow added to the wintry woes. In sections of West and Middle Tennessee, roads were left virtually impassable.
The state’s hazardous ice, which fell as a combination of freezing rain and sleet, was reported to have stretched as far east as Nashville and into other areas of Middle Tennessee, prompting Gov. Bill Haslam to declare a state of emergency.
Responding to a plea for assistance from the giant Memphis utility, CU sent seven linemen, two standard bucket trucks and a digger derrick truck. Volunteering for the emergency response were Bill Raulston, Nathan Davis, Josh Day, Steve Kiser, Anthony Hicks, Mike Isham and John McClain.
“We inquired through TVPPA (Tennessee Valley Public Power Association) if anyone needed assistance [following the Sunday and Sunday night winter storm], and they responded with where it was needed,” according to Jamie Creekmore, CU customer relations.
Creekmore said the CU workers will be available for as long as they are needed.
“There is no timetable for how long they will be gone,” he told the Cleveland Daily Banner late Monday. “We are glad to be of service to our community and beyond for as long as it is needed.”
He said the CU linemen would return home early only if there is a pressing Cleveland need.
Over the past few weeks, the local utility has dispatched crews to Chattanooga twice to assist the Electric Power Board with restoration of electric service following weather-related incidents in Hamilton County.
But this is the biggest CU deployment — involving a long travel distance — to render assistance to another storm-ravaged region since November 2012, when two crews were sent to the Northeast in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which terrorized much of the upper East Coast before zeroing in on the New England states, especially New York and New Jersey and long stretches of the Eastern Shore.
The powerful hurricane, whose outer bands of high winds and heavy rain stretched into the Midwest and parts of the Deep South, left millions without power in the Northeast. Just as the majority of New England homes were getting their lights back on, a nor’easter — dubbed Winter Storm Athena by some forecasters — blew in and blanketed sections of the same hard-hit areas, with snowfall amounts ranging from a few inches to a foot or more.
In that emergency response, CU crews worked in Dover, Del., Milltown, N.J., and later Madison, N.J., before returning to Cleveland two weeks later.
Monday’s CU response came immediately once the severity of the Memphis disaster became known. Likely, CU is one of many Southern utility companies planning to swarm the Bluff City with power crews to render emergency assistance.
“The Memphis utility reported over 29,000 electrical outages as of Monday morning,” Creekmore said. “They were requesting help. The outages are due to an ice storm that came through on Sunday, and that continue to impact the area.”
According to statewide published reports, with some centering in the Memphis area, it could take several days to restore electric power to all impacted customers.
In Tennessee, according to the National Weather Service, sections of West and Middle Tennessee north of Interstate 40 are thought to have suffered the most crippling blows from the ice storm. A steady, freezing rain is reported to have fallen atop Shelby County throughout Sunday and Sunday night. Some regions in Middle Tennessee reported half an inch of ice.
Brittany Coleman, a meteorologist with the NWS office in Nashville, reported nearby Stewart County documented 5 inches of sleet. Stewart, located about 60 miles northwest of Nashville and whose county seat is Dover, sits on the Kentucky line and is considered part of the Clarksville-Montgomery County metropolitan area.
Across Tennessee, some 61,000 customers were reported to be without power as of midday Monday. Half of that amount was in Memphis and Shelby County.
While thousands of Tennessee residents sat in the dark awaiting the return of lights, ice-covered roads were taking their toll. The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported 306 weather-related crashes from Sunday through early Monday. Two of the wrecks left three people dead.
THP also confirmed a pileup in East Tennessee on Interstate 75 on Jellico Mountain in Campbell County. The accident reportedly involved four tractor-trailers and eight vehicles.
Like most utility providers, many of whom are members of the American Public Power Association, Cleveland Utilities maintains a list of volunteers willing to travel out-of-town during times of emergency need. Most involve natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and paralyzing blizzards.
McClain and Kiser, who are part of the emergency crew dispatched to Memphis, were also part of CU’s five-man team that responded to the Northeast to help make repairs following Superstorm Sandy and Winter Storm Athena.
Cleveland Utilities is no stranger to emergency need. Following the now infamous tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, when five confirmed twisters roared through Bradley County, CU found itself overwhelmed by damage. Roughly one-fourth of its power distribution grid had been decimated.
Over the next 1 1/2 weeks, utility companies from neighboring states dispatched more than 30 crews to assist the crippled Cleveland utility company. Crews came from as far away as Orlando, Fla.
CU longtimers also remember another devastating storm that brought the utility to its knees. This one came March 12-13, 1993. It was billed the Blizzard of ’93, and by some the Storm of the Century. The two-day, late-winter storm blanketed Cleveland and Bradley County with 21 inches of snow, and led to communitywide power outages. Its severity paralyzed the city.
Ken Webb, CU president and CEO, said Monday that requests for emergency assistance from other utility companies do not fall on deaf ears with the local public utility — especially since the outpouring of help CU received in 1993 and 2011.
“Over the years, Cleveland Utilities has received assistance from others and we are always willing to provide assistance when possible,” Webb said. “My thanks go out to our employees making the trip. We will be praying for their safety for the duration of their time away as they are assisting our friends on the other end of the state."