Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cold And Without Power

We feel their pain. If anyone can understand what folks around the country are dealing with following massive power outages because of a series of severe ice storms, it the residents of South Florida, who experienced similar woes following hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.

In September of 2004 with Frances and Jeanne, and in late October of 2005 with Hurricane Wilma, nearly everyone in our area lost power. For some, the electrical outage lasted a few hours while others waited nearly two weeks before the lights came back on.

Of course, the big difference is the temperature. When we lost our electricity to the hurricanes it came during a warm period of the year. For the more than 300,000 homes and businesses in the South, Midwest and Northeast without power last week it came during the height of winter.

Hardest hit was the state of Missouri where emergency officials reported more than 170,000 people without electricity. When I talked with ABC’s Eric Hrong covering the story in Union, Missouri he said that most residents were staying home, doing what they could to stay warm even as the temperature inside their house dropped into the upper 20’s.

The ice storm that caused so many problems was the latest in a series of severe winter storms that have swept through the middle of the country. Still, as bad as it has been, the ice storm that crippled Canada nine years ago this month was even worse.

For nearly a week in January of 1998, freezing rain covered Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick with three to four inches of ice. Tree limbs and power lines came crashing down along with utility poles and even huge transmission towers. More than four million people were without power in what became the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.

It started, innocently enough, on January 5 as Canadians were heading back to work following the Christmas holidays. Most ice storms in Canada last a few hours and that’s what people were expecting. However, this ice storm was different, persisting another 80 hours and coating everything in an icy glaze.

The heavy ice brought down 130 transmission towers, 30,000 utility poles and millions
of trees. Quebec’s famous sugar bush, used by the region’s maple syrup producers, was destroyed. It could be 40 years before syrup production returns to normal.

Canada’s dairy farmers were hit hard by the ice storm. With no electricity to run their milking machines, farmers used generators to keep their farms running. Most milk processing plants were shut down and around 10 million litres of milk had to be thrown away.

With the electrical grid so badly destroyed (a major rebuilding of the grid was required to fix the damage the storm produced), it took utility crews several weeks to restore power to everyone. In some cases, people were without electricity for more than one month.

Twenty-eight people died (mostly from hypothermia) while another 900 were injured. More than 600,000 residents were forced to leave their homes and live in shelters for weeks. Totals damages from the storm topped $5 billion.

I’ve experienced one ice storm in my life (in Topeka, Kansas more than 20 years ago) and it crippled the region. You are left with a feeling of helplessness as utility workers attempt to restore power while city crews try to clear the streets of ice.

It’s a lot like the days following Frances, Jeanne and Wilma with one big exception: the temperatures here were much warmer.

Posted at 9:01 AM