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iPhones, Internet help Kentuckians talk post-storm

Saturday, February 7, 2009

MURRAY, Ky. -- When an ice storm brought down telephone poles and power lines across much of Kentucky, one small-town mayor pulled out his iPhone and began tapping away, posting rapid-fire updates on Facebook to let his constituents know what was going on.

"Will is glad to report that power in parts of the South Main and Grapevine areas is back on. Slowly but surely ...," Madisonville Mayor William Cox typed.

Days later, he warned: "Will asks people with frozen water meters to PLEASE not use a torch or build a fire inside the meter box. This WILL damage the cutoff and meter!"

And at another point, he offered this piece of news: "Will was just advised by the Hopkins County School System that there is NO school on Monday or Tuesday."

The storm last week forced many people in Kentucky to get creative just to communicate.

In a rural community 40 miles from Madisonville, a couple used their truck's OnStar service to summon help when fallen trees blocked the road leading from their trailer. And in Murray, a college radio station managed to stay on the air with the help of a generator, giving people vital information on where to find food and heat.

"I wish I could say I had some great epiphany I was going to use this to communicate with my citizens, but I didn't," said Cox, who charged his iPhone in his car to keep his messages flowing. "I just got my phone out and started typing, and I haven't stopped."

At the height of the ice storm, more than 1.3 million homes and businesses were left without power in several states, and thousands still don't have it back. The storm knocked out land-line phones and forced some cell phone companies onto backup generators. In many cases, wireless Internet worked when cell phones didn't get through.

Though his town's 19,000 residents were staying in shelters, bunking with relatives or cut off from neighbors because they had no power, Cox managed to create a virtual town hall meeting with his iPhone.

He sent out a blizzard of Facebook messages updating townspeople on efforts to restore power, water and other services, and they responded with questions and encouragement.

On Friday, a week and a half after the storm, he was still cranking out updates, among them:

-- "Will has been told that additional Kenergy crews are supposed to arrive today."

-- "Will advises that tree crews will be in the following areas today: McPherson/Parkwood, Highland Drive, and Dodson Lane."

-- "Will estimates that 90% of City utility customers are back online."

One of the residents paying attention was Seth Moore, a manager at a nursing home. His cell phone did not work, but a friend who uses a different provider had one that did, so Moore borrowed it and began reading the mayor's messages.

"More than anything, he was letting us know there was some action. It was like he updated it, then updated it five minutes later," Moore said.

The communication challenges also stymied people trying to get emergency help. Where there were no working phones, there was no way to call 911. Though National Guardsmen made door-to-door safety checks, they couldn't be everywhere at once.

Brian Murphy, 58, was trapped at his rural Caldwell County home with his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is blind. With the roads blocked, they waited and waited for help, but no one came. Their food supply had dwindled to crackers and peanut butter.

Murphy was able to cut a path in his driveway, reached his truck and used its OnStar emergency road-service system to contact his sister, Kathy McElroy. She, in turn, called emergency workers.

He stayed in contact with her via OnStar for two days until a crew used chain saws to cut their way through to the Murphys. The couple were finally able to drive to his sister's home.

"I was just thrilled," McElroy said, her voice shaking. "Everything is good."

In Murray, near the Tennessee line, Murray State University's WKMS-FM stayed on the air thanks to a generator, reaching listeners lucky enough to have battery-powered radios. Staff members also extended the reach of the radio station's signal by climbing onto the roof of the eight-story building and chipping ice off the backup antenna.

The staff debunked rumors, offered a friendly voice for callers seeking information or comfort, and tracked down the latest information on efforts to restore power and where to find generators or heating fuel. Reports of open restaurants or stores created instant lines.

"They were my only contact with the outside world for days," said Sandra Parks, who listened on an emergency hand-cranked radio she had received as a gift for donating money to the station.

In Massachusetts, Barbara Schiappa said the station's website updates comforted her as she awaited word on her sister.

"It was sort of like a window into what was happening," Schiappa said. Thanks to the station, Schiappa said, she was able to monitor which streets were regaining power and figure out how close utility crews were getting to her sister's house.

At first, students didn't even know if their broadcasts were getting out.

"There were points where I was thinking to myself, `The entire grid is down here. Who's going to be reading this website?"' said student employee Jacque Day.

Scores of phone calls soon answered that question. And there was another way they knew their broadcasts were getting out: Grateful listeners made their way through the debris-strewn streets to bring baked goods and other food to the staff.


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