By Brad Bowman
When the first of three snow and ice storms hit Kentucky on Feb. 10, Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM) activated its State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC). In the following days and weeks, the Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) staffed the center, providing hour-by-hour relief coordination.
Kenya Stump, executive director of EEC’s Office of Energy Policy (OEP), was one of the cabinet officials who staffed the center and who coordinated with state transportation, law enforcement, the National Guard, and power and utility partners to provide critical state resources which at its peak left more than 150,000 Kentuckians without power.
“It’s hard to watch the numbers go up,” Stump said. “We have to integrate a lot of systems, look at the data, and manage where assets and resources need to be deployed so we can begin restoration and start recovery efforts.”
Staffing the Emergency Operations Center along with Stump were OEP Energy Assurance Coordinator Amanda LeMaster, EEC Emergency Response Branch Manager Robert Francis, Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) Director Brandon Howard, KDF Fire Management Chief Michael Froelich and the PSC’s Mike Nantz and Vice Chair Kent Chandler.
Each worked to coordinate information from all affected parts of the commonwealth. This came by way of phone calls and text messages from local emergency managers throughout the state and from emergency teams in the field, which include employees of the EEC’s Division of Water, water treatment operators and utility companies.
Overall, they monitored about 20 different data streams, Kentucky Emergency Management Director Michael Dossett said. While monitoring outages, SEOC personnel communicate constantly with state, federal and local emergency partners. This enables the SEOC to make informed decisions that allow a quick response, Dossett said.
“At one point, power outages peaked at 154,400 and this morning (Tuesday, Feb. 23), we are at 12,000 to 14,000, which is a remarkable effort by everyone involved,” Dossett said. “Everyone pulled together on behalf of our counties and our communities. We have a unified command at the SEOC, and while I steer the ship, it is a complete team effort.”
“We’ve become very adept at dealing with adverse conditions and I credit that to the team, which goes all the way from the local emergency management manager and local responders and up to the people that sit in the state EOC and our federal partners. All done by folks in different cabinets that don’t work together every day, but they come together and — they don’t just do their job — they are intuitive. They have a calling to make things better for the people in our communities and that’s what makes it all work.”
In addition to staffing the SEOC, The Division of Forestry had employees working outside during the storms, clearing ice-crusted trees from roadways and plowing snow-covered streets. Leading up to the storm, KDF employees were told to be prepared to leave their families for a week while they worked to help communities throughout the state.
“We knew what was coming and reached out to our employees to first ask for volunteers. We had nearly 70 people who were immediately engaged and put them on pre-established teams,” KDF Director Howard said. “We had five operators pushing snow with the Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) during the height of the storm.”
Forty-four KDF employees worked on saw teams with KYTC personnel clearing state highways from downed trees. An additional 19 KDF employees were deployed as saw teams for local emergency management. Five KDF employees trained nearly 50 Kentucky National Guard soldiers in chainsaw operation to fill in gaps in eastern Kentucky.
Additional KDF employees were sent as bulldozer crews at two Kentucky Emergency Warning System (KEWS) tower sites to clear roads blocked by snow, ice and fallen trees, Howard said.
One site required the bulldozer crew to clear about four miles of snow and debris so the tower’s generator could be refueled. KEWS towers are used by Kentucky Fish & Wildlife, Kentucky State Police, conservation officers and first responders that rely on these towers for emergency communications.
Division personnel spend five months out of the year battling wildland fires, Howard said. This helps them stay in a state of instant readiness, and has helped KDF be effective during emergencies.
“We knew this was coming. Before the first drop of ice ever formed on a tree, we had our saw teams identified and on standby ready to go. That’s why we can deploy (our people) so fast,” Howard said.
Dossett said that preparation was the key difference between the ice storm of 2009 that affected so many Kentuckians compared to this weather event. Lessons learned from that ice storm allowed the state to minimize impact to Kentuckians, he said.
“There is something new you learn in each and every disaster. The consequences are both positive and negative. The positives are you learn many times over that people help people. Neighbors help neighbors. Families help families,” Dossett said.
“The thing that prevented this from being so widespread was twofold. We didn’t get icing across the entire state. In the areas where we did get icing, our power companies, and our RECCs (rural electric cooperative corporations) had done preventive work over a period of years. If the trees and the foliage were in the same condition that they were in 2009, we would not be recovering this week. This would have gone on much longer. The number of outages would be more extreme.”
Emergency Management Branch Manager Francis said the 2009 ice storm showed the benefit of getting more people involved in crucial communications during severe weather. Others from the emergency response team who staffed the emergency operations center included James (Buck) McCloud, Frederick (J.R.) Holt, and Rob Blair.
“We pulled in the Office of Energy Policy (OEP) and the PSC,” Francis said. “We started working closer with them, identifying where we had major power issues and we would communicate with OEP and tell them if we needed to prioritize a pump station. This year was a big difference in that we didn’t see as many people without water, we didn’t see such prolonged outages.”
Stump said these events emphasize not just our power and resource interdependence but also our reliance on each other as Kentuckians.
“The interconnectedness of everything is where we have to look at where the system is vulnerable and try to insulate that,” Stump said.
“You just want to keep your fellow Kentuckians safe and healthy. We do the best we can at the state level to help those on the ground, in those communities. The real heroes are the ones up on the power pole in the middle of the night trying to get power on or the operator sleeping at the water treatment plant in his truck. They are the ones making restoration happen. We’re just there to make sure they have the support and resources they need.”