Few winter storm outages remain, some rural areas still down

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Life is starting to return to normal across the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions after a powerful winter storm dropped freezing rain, sleet and snow across the area, resulting in tens of thousands of residents being left without power for extended periods.

Among the hardest hit utilities was the Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, where AVEC's Greg Davis said nearly 20,000 customers lost power, though he said that number has been reduced greatly.

"We're at 3,500 (without power) right now. The hardest hit areas are Waldron and Booneville. Greenwood is not looking that good, either. We're at 294 (customers without power) there. But I have a feeling that number is wrong. I think we've made better progress there."

The biggest challenge for the cooperative is the amount of customers who live in very remote areas, slowing crews ready to restore power.

"(Due to the amount of rural customers), anytime you have an ice storm, the Electric Cooperatives get hit harder than anyone in any given area. We have to go through so much rural and forested area. It's the case for any electric cooperative that services this part of the state, running through two national forests, the Ozark National Forest and the Ouachita National Forest."

Crews working in the Ouachitas have found that many areas with downed power lines are not even served by roads of any sort, Davis said, meaning AVEC crews "have to clear fell timbers and limbs just to get to them."

Northwest Arkansas was largely spared power outages due to the higher levels of snow, with Pea Ridge measuring one foot of snow and Fayetteville accumulating seven inches. Fort Smith and areas south saw ice accumulations in excess of a half inch in addition to minor snow accumulations.

Southwestern Electric Power Company, which serves a region stretching from Benton County to Texarkana, said on its website that at the peak of the storm, as many as 14,000 customers were out of power, with the vast majority of those being south of Fort Smith.

"On Sunday, about 425 line, tree and support personnel from Oklahoma, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are working this storm recovery effort. These resources include 340 internal and 85 external resources," a message on the website read.

As of 2 p.m. Monday (Dec. 9), SWEPCO was reporting 1,171 customers in its Arkansas service area without power, including 655 in Polk County, 212 in Sebastian County, 194 in Sevier County and 110 in Scott County.

Rob Ratley, a spokesman for Oklahoma Gas and Electric in Fort Smith, said all services on the OG&E system had been restored by Monday morning in the Fort Smith region.

"We had over 300 line workers working the restoration and that dealt with the various departments from transmission, substation and distribution. Those are the three main units."

In addition to the 300 line workers, Ratley said nine additional crews are in the Fort Smith region on standby to ensure all repairs are finalized and complete. While crews with AVEC experienced trouble reaching downed lines, Ratley said OG&E's restoration process was relatively simple.

"The whole restoration process went very smoothly considering the extent of the storm," he said. "This was an unusual weather pattern with the Arctic front and the conditions and ice accumulation. But for a storm of this nature, we were very pleased with the restoration process and the outage times. All of it was restored by this morning."

Ratley said while the situation was not easy, especially under harsh conditions, he appreciated customers giving crews from all across the region time and space to get power restored.

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"We would like to let all of our customers know that we really appreciate their understanding and patience through this ordeal. We realize it's an inconvenience and difficult for those that have extended outages."

Davis said he expects most power to be restored to AVEC customers by tomorrow, though he said customers in remote areas "could be looking at Friday or Saturday." SWEPCO has not provided any sort of timeline for when power may be restored.

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