Seven Cleveland Utilities line workers Tuesday carefully maneuvered their bucket trucks and a digger derrick truck into Bartlett, a Memphis suburb located along the Bluff City’s northern perimeter, to join a growing fleet of emergency crews working to turn the lights back on.
At its worst, as many as 61,000 people in the Mid-South region lost power once 3-4 inches of freezing rain, sleet and snow had taken their toll on limbs and trees, in many cases sending them crashing down atop ice-coated power lines. The city of Memphis alone accounted for 30,000 of those utility customers who were left in the dark and many were without a source of heat.
Responding to a plea for help from Memphis Light, Gas and Water that was distributed through the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, Cleveland Utilities on Monday deployed a volunteer team of Electric Division emergency responders who pulled out of town by 1:45 p.m. and headed west for the state’s frozen tundra.
The team arrived safely Monday night, but found in the wake of the Sunday winter storm — dubbed “Titan” by some weather agencies and forecasters — as much as 3 inches of compacted ice and snow on the streets of Memphis. Farther north, along areas of that side of Interstate 40, conditions were reported to be even worse.
In Stewart County, located about an hour’s drive northwest of Nashville and which shares a border with Kentucky, some 5 inches of sleet were reported to have fallen by Monday, according to the National Weather Service.
Jamie Creekmore, a Cleveland Utilities customer relations representative who is staying in close contact with the local team’s work and whereabouts, reported Tuesday the line workers arrived in Memphis without incident and immediately attended a safety briefing that night. On Tuesday morning, the group was deployed to Bartlett.
CU linemen on the volunteer list, and who were cleared to make the Memphis emergency response, included Bill Raulston, Nathan Davis, Josh Day, Steve Kiser, Anthony Hicks, Mike Isham and John McClain
By midday Tuesday, McClain was reporting to Creekmore the group’s latest position.
“I just received a call from John McClain,” Creekmore told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “They are getting started for the day and are on their way to Bartlett to replace some broken poles. John said there are currently about 3 inches of ice on the roads.”
Travel conditions in the Memphis area were expected to improve slowly by midweek with an accompanying rise in temperatures.
For most of the CU team’s trip to West Tennessee, the roads were clear, Creekmore explained.
“[The roads] started getting bad around the Memphis area,” he said. “The guys attended a safety meeting [Monday night] when they arrived.”
By late morning on Tuesday, the number of Memphis residents without power had been whittled down from the original 30,000 to approximately 14,000 MLGW customers, Creekmore cited.
“John said he would try to call me with updates as time allows,” the customer relations representative pointed out.
However, those reports could be infrequent as CU crew members’ priorities will be to stay in motion replacing broken poles and power lines, which would return Memphians to the light and restore an appreciated warmth to their homes. Creekmore made no mention of the length of their shifts.
If the Cleveland crew follows a pattern similar to that used in November 2012, when five line workers traveled to the Northeast to help in the recovery from Superstorm Sandy and Winter Storm Athena, they could find themselves working in neighboring regions. In the aftermath of Sandy, CU workers toiled in three cities — Dover, Del., and Milltown and Madison, N.J.
The CU emergency responders spent two weeks helping the East Coast, Eastern Shore and New England to return power.
By Monday morning, MLGW officials were estimating several days will be needed to restore the utility to full power. CU leaders have provided no timetable on when the Cleveland line workers will return home.
“We are glad to be of service to our community and beyond, for as long as it is needed,” Creekmore told the Banner late Monday.
Ken Webb, CU president and CEO, reiterated his commitment to help other utility companies in need, and his concern for the safety and well-being of his employees.
“Over the years, Cleveland Utilities has received assistance from others and we are always willing to provide assistance when possible,” Webb said.
He praised the seven CU line workers for their willingness to work in the dangerous, icy conditions, and for their spirit of volunteerism.
Like most TVPPA members, Cleveland Utilities maintains a volunteer list that is open to line crews. The list’s purpose is to identify employees who are willing to make road trips to other communities facing disaster situations. The list operates on a rotation basis. Once a worker’s name makes it to the top of the list, and is the worker deployed to an emergency, his name then returns to the bottom of the slate.
The five-member team that traveled to the Northeast to fight the ravages of Superstorm Sandy were all volunteers, as is the group now working in Memphis.
Webb said he and the entire CU family will keep the Memphis volunteers in their prayers.
“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,” Webb said late Monday, and he repeated his vow a day later.