The inevitable result was the toppling of hundreds of trees and heavy limbs, many of them on top of CU power lines. Winds and crashing trees even snapped three utility poles.
Unlike the immediate aftermath of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that destroyed one-fourth of the Cleveland Utilities power distribution grid, this time CU emergency workers have fought the uphill battle alone in the face of a blazing sun that again skyrocketed temperatures into triple digits with heat index values nearing 110.
CU crews toiled all night Thursday and through Friday on their own because surrounding utility companies are caught up in their own races against time and heat. No outside help has been available this time, according to Tom Wheeler, CU president and chief executive officer. In many cases, area utility companies are contacting one another asking for assistance. But it’s not there to give.
Wheeler even pointed to the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga which had earlier dispatched some of its crews to Western states to assist with weather-related emergencies.
In a Friday night update, Wheeler said CU crews had whittled down their task to “about 40 or 50 individual cases of trouble, probably representing at least 100 customers without power.” Most of these were expected to have their power restored by sometime Saturday; at least, those whose homes were capable of receiving an electric feed. In a few isolated cases, homeowners were in need of the services of professional electricians for interior repairs.
By 7:18 p.m. Thursday, some 12,523 CU customers had lost power due to the damaging winds that brought plenty of community havoc, but very little — if any — rain to most areas. By midnight, the numbers without power had been cut to 3,031, and by early Friday morning the number was down to about 100. However, as is the case in most major power outages, the last few dozen are often the most difficult, Wheeler explained.
“I can tell from conversations with our customers that some cannot understand how we can get 12,000 customers back on in 24 hours, but it will take another 24 hours to get the last 100 back on,” Wheeler said in his Friday night briefing. “The best analogy ... is that sometimes we can throw one switch and get 1,000 people back on. Sometimes we can throw one switch and only get one customer back on.”
He added, “We try to prioritize the work in such a manner that we are tackling the jobs in the order that will get the most people back on with the completion of each repair job.”
While other public utilities were contacting Cleveland Utilities on Friday seeking help to restore power in their systems, CU was on the phone trying to find assistance as well. Because of the extent of damage throughout Southeast Tennessee, and the fact that some utility distributors were already operating at partial strength, it became another perfect storm for power loss, customer frustration and exhausted utility workers — just like April 27, 2011.
Even as late as Friday night, Wheeler confirmed CU would continue to seek assistance — and other companies probably would be as well — but the problem by then was timing. Crews were already working well into Friday night with emergency work expected to be wrapped up sometime Saturday.
“The dilemma is that if the help is too far away, we will probably have repairs completed before the help could arrive,” Wheeler said late Friday. “Our crews still continue to give their maximum effort at restoring power, but hours spent in the 99-degree, and higher, heat can be very taxing.”
Meanwhile, customers who are among the last to have their power restored are making do the best they can in life-threatening temperatures. Although some are staying put at home, others are spending time in cooler surroundings such as the mall, shopping centers, retailers, movie theaters and emergency shelters.
“Right now we are plugging away with all we have and we will continue to do so until all customers are back in power,” Wheeler said Friday night. “Unfortunately, as I said many times during the April 27, 2011, tornadoes, somebody will be last in getting their power back on and no one wants it to be them.”
He added, “We understand, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that dynamic. While moving house to house restoring power, we are seeing the very best in people.”
Wheeler acknowledged in some “very rare instances” CU crews and customer service representatives are seeing the worst. It is understandable, he said, because the current heat wave is taking its toll on the patience, mobility and energy of most within the community, especially those who work outside or whose homes are poorly cooled or ventilated.
“We appreciate the patience of everyone as we continue our work to get everyone back on as quickly as possible,” Wheeler said.
n Salvation Army Reminder: The organization is continuing its “Beat the Heat” fan drive. Area churches, businesses and individuals have donated box fans to SA for distribution to residents who may need them to combat the ongoing heat wave. The fans are available at the Salvation Army at 437 Inman St., from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. For additional information, call 308-3467.