County gets socked with one-two punch of ice and snow
National Guard called to assist
By SUSAN BERG and ROWENA PLETT
All some Marion County residents want for Christmas is electricity. But for some, that's a wish that not even Santa may be able to grant.
At last count, there were 750 to 1,000 homes in Marion County without power. At one point, there were more without power than with. Telephone service also was interrupted.
It all began Dec. 10 when an ice storm hit the county, striking the north and northwest parts the hardest. Crews from Westar Energy and Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative came out in full force, working 12 to 16-hour days to restore power, knowing another storm was at their heels.
Four to eight inches of snow fell on broken poles and downed power lines Friday afternoon and evening, slowing the process of restoring electricity to rural and city customers.
The hardest hit areas from the ice and snow storms appeared to be north of 190th Road.
As of Monday morning, the towns of Lincolnville, Ramona, Lost Springs, and Tampa still were without power, and schools in Centre USD 397 remained closed. Some progress had been reported with electricity restored to some rural farms and homes during the weekend, including the cities of Lehigh and Durham.
Marion County Commission held a special meeting Friday morning in preparation for colder temperatures and a snow storm.
Marion County was declared a disaster area Dec. 10, so the county could receive federal assistance.
County emergency management director Michele Abbott-Becker said the declaration was necessary to access aid.
Abbott-Becker said Flint Hills RECA had reported that out of a total of 6,300 meters in a three-county area, including Marion County, 4,300 were out of commission, and 700 to 800 poles needed to be replaced.
The rural electric company suffered $7.5 million in damages in 2005 in the counties it serves. In comparison, estimates for this year's disaster could be $15 million, Abbott-Becker said.
At least 88 extra linemen have joined the company's 25 crew members in making repairs. They came from northwest Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
Lincolnville Community Center is a Red Cross emergency shelter
An American Red Cross emergency shelter was opened at Lincolnville Community Center Dec. 11. Small generators from the Lincolnville and Lost Springs fire departments provided heat and light.
On Friday, a large generator was delivered by the National Guard and put into action. It allows for full use of the kitchen and provides hot water.
According to Lincolnville city councilman Dawn Kaiser, an average of 50 meals are being served, three times a day. Cots are set up to accommodate those who need overnight lodging.
The county commission decided during Friday's special meeting to provide financial assistance, if needed, to the City of Lincolnville when three-phase wiring was installed to accommodate the generator provided by the National Guard.
At Monday's commission meeting, Abbott-Becker reported the Lincolnville shelter was to become a community shelter because there weren't enough people using it to qualify for Red Cross services.
The commission approved up to $1,500 to be used to assist the Lincolnville shelter, that is available for all Marion County residents, to help with food and fuel for the generator.
USD 397 personnel had donated food after the electricity went off at the school to keep food from being wasted.
Westar Energy reported there were no additional outages as a result of the snow storm but the worse may be yet to come.
As the snow melts, more trees could fall, more power poles may come down, resulting in more time in restoring electricity, Abbott-Becker said.
During Friday's meeting, preparations were made to open a second shelter at Marion County Lake hall. At press time, that shelter was not open because there was not a need.
The Lehigh area was the hardest hit. It was reported that the one generator the City of Lehigh owned was being used to operate the water.
Radios for emergency personnel are being recharged in the county's emergency trailer, located at Lincolnville.
Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker reported the lack of electricity causing people to be cold and bored has resulted in more domestic situations and teens out of control. Other issues may occur as time goes on without power.
Sheriff's deputies went door-to-door in rural areas Friday afternoon with a more thorough search Saturday afternoon.
Residents in the cities of Lehigh, Tampa, and Durham were checked Friday, Becker said.
With the commission table covered with maps like a war room, Marion County emergency personnel were at war — with time.
Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker called together the "troops" of approximately 60 volunteers at 2 p.m. Saturday.
EMTs and firefighters crowded the commission room at Marion County Courthouse to volunteer as door-to-door searches were planned.
Concerns increased with the snow compounding the situation of county residents possibly being stranded in their homes without electricity and most without telephones.
Three vehicles and six volunteers came from Butler County to assist as did National Guard personnel in Humvees. By 10 p.m., the volunteers had contacted as many homes as possible.
"There didn't appear to be anyone in distress," Becker said.
Most longtime county residents have generators, which provide the basic essentials of heat and minimal meal preparation.
Care of livestock, primarily water, also was addressed.
Sheriff deputy Jim Philpott of Peabody said fire department tanker trucks were used in the 2005 ice storm to provide essential water to livestock. A similar service could be made available.
In a cloud of snow and a wind to rival any Kansas storm, a Kansas Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopter landed at the helicopter pad Sunday morning at St. Luke Hospital, Marion, for a briefing with county personnel.
The assessment team included Bill Chornyak, deputy director of Kansas Division of Emergency Management; Col. Eric Peck, Chief of staff of Kansas National Guard; and Col. Lee Tafanelli, director of operations of Kansas National Guard.
Abbott-Becker reported that ice had damaged a main communication antenna. An actual damage assessment was to come this week. Generators were on communication towers to keep radio contact for EMS and fire personnel.
Abbott-Becker said her main concern during this crisis was to make sure fire and EMS personnel can be paged for emergencies.
Becker said when residents were checked Friday and Saturday, they seemed to be "nestled in" and OK, but he was concerned about their needs later on.
County road and bridge and state highway crews worked diligently during the weekend to clear roads, Abbott-Becker said, but she still remained concerned about residents being without electricity and home phones.
Coping with the storm
The many residents without power are adjusting in various ways to the long-term outage. Some people use portable generators to keep the lights on and stay warm. Others stay with friends and relatives.
Lyle Krause, a farmer who lives four miles west of Lincolnville, said his house is equipped with manually-operated propane wall heaters, so warmth isn't a problem. His biggest concern is keeping his cattle supplied with water. On Friday he was hoping to find someone with a tank truck to deliver it to his place.
The Lost Springs Post Office is warm because it is heated with a natural gas space heater. Postmaster Diane Ecklund brings a Coleman lantern from home to supply light during the early morning hours. To weigh letters and packages, she uses an electronic postal scale which also operates on batteries.
Officials in Ramona have been out and about, making sure that all of the town's residents are taken care of. Jessica Gilbert said some people have gas heaters and stoves and some have moved in with relatives. The elderly are checked on regularly to make sure they have heat. Four generators were purchased and provided where needed.
On Friday, cleanup of broken branches had already begun in Tampa. Huge piles could be seen along streets, and much more remained to be done.
Moderately cold temperatures in the 20s and 30s for most of the past week made the situation more bearable. Warming temperatures on Thursday melted the ice from power lines, making it easier for linemen to handle them.
Some utility company spokesmen reported power may be restored to the majority of customers by Saturday.
That would be a Christmas wish come true.