Most of Farmington has power back; shelter to close today

Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Ice-covered trees, like this one on Highway 32, fell onto power lines and caused electrical outages throughout Farmington, Mo., after Thursday's ice storm. (Diane L. Wilson)

FARMINGTON, Mo. -- For Verena Robinson, it has been five long days since her home at 712 Warren St. in Farmington was livable.

And nothing she has heard lately makes her believe she's getting back soon.

"I'd like to go back by the end of the week, but we'll just wait and see what happens," she said from the shelter run by the Red Cross at the Farmington Civic Center.

All in Farmington except approximately 200 homes now have power, according to the fire department.

But for Robinson, one of about 15,000 people who lost power in Farmington on Thursday and one those few still without it, the best way to cope is to look on the bright side.

"There's no sense in complaining," she said.

"It isn't a bad experience because you're getting everything you need -- supplies for hygiene, hot food. It may not be all you want, but it's what they can prepare for 100, and I am getting my 1,800-calorie diet."

Power went out at the Robinson home around 9:30 p.m. Thursday when a tree fell on the line leading directly to her house. Power flickered back on briefly that night but when she woke up shivering the next morning she realized she wouldn't be able to stick it out at home.

She, her daughter, Juanetta, and her son-in-law have been at the civic center since Saturday.

But don't ask Robinson to feel sorry for herself.

"We've been playing cards and other games to pass the time. My house is nearby, so I'm better off than most. In the daytime my kids go to get clothes and towels for me," she said. "People here are interesting. I've been able to talk with different ones, and each one has problems and different experiences."

Only 16 people stayed overnight Tuesday in the shelter. At the highest point, the number was 75 to 100, she said.

The outage was caused by something akin to a perfect storm, said Farmington assistant fire chief Todd Mecey.

"In 17 years I've never seen an ice storm of that magnitude," he said.

"This was just a matter of trees falling due to the weight of the ice on them. They were falling out of easements and out of rights of way and taking down lines with them."

Utility poles broke

Mecey said heavy, freezing rain began to pelt the area at about 6 p.m. Thursday. It continued until after 2 a.m., by which point most exposed structures were coated with between half an inch and an inch of ice.

A one-inch layer of ice weighs about five pounds per square foot. Mecey said the weight was so much that poles broke off from carrying the iced lines.

By daybreak Friday, nearly all of Farmington was without power. The city owns more than 10 diesel-powered generators and quickly put them to use. In the best of conditions, the generators can supply power to 75 percent of Farmington's population.

But because of all the downed lines, the generators restored power to less than 10 percent of the town, Mecey said.

By the end of the workday Tuesday, power was back on in to all Farmington homes except about 200 that, like Robinson's, had lines severed at the residence.

The Red Cross will close its shelter sometime today. Robinson and some others without power who qualify will be compensated for hotel rooms.

In total, the Red Cross served 500 meals per day beginning Friday and sheltered 150 to 160 people.

Also involved in the recovery effort are 200 National Guardsmen from units in Cape Girardeau, Farmington, Fredericktown, Festus and Perryville.

The soldiers have been going door to door since Friday making sure people were warm and comfortable. Tuesday they began helping city workers clear tree limbs.

The duty, soldiers said, has been mostly precautionary but may have saved the lives of one family.

On Monday night Spc. Larry Kelley of Park Hills, a member of the 1138th Engineer Company Sapper Unit was on patrol with another soldier, knocking on doors. One house emitted a strong smell of smoke. After knocking repeatedly on the door, they received no answer and called the fire department.

Responders found a family warming themselves with an alcohol-fueled fire in coffee cans. Firefighters estimated that another hour or so of exposure to carbon monoxide could have been deadly.

"The people were conscious, but there was a direct load of carbon monoxide in the residence," Mecey said.

Firefighters and guardsmen alike were surprised by the number of people using generators.

"At first we only found a small percentage of people using backup generators, but as the days progressed we saw more and more," Mecey said.

Mecey believes a number of people bought generators in part due to a misconception that either the state or federal emergency management agency would reimburse them for it.

"It's not true," he said.

But those on door-to-door duty left people at home who wanted to stay. "We can't force anybody out. It's their home, so if they feel comfortable there, it's OK as long as they're safe," Mecey said.

335-6611, extension 245

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