Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TOP STORY >> Thousands in the dark after harsh wind storm slams area

Strong winds blew across the state Tuesday leaving thousands without electricity and causing fires that destroyed several buildings at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith.

In Lonoke, as darkness approached, rescuers were cutting limbs and parts of a house with chainsaws Tuesday, where a woman, pinned to her bed by a huge fallen oak tree, was believed dead, according to Mayor Wayne McGee. The tree was uprooted by the same straight-line winds that played havoc throughout the area, downing electrical lines, uprooting trees and damaging structures throughout several counties including Lonoke and north Pulaski.

The mayor said as many as 20 would-be rescuers worked in shifts trying to get to the woman in her home on Hamburg Street near Brown Street. A MEMS ambulance stood by. In addition to the mayor, Fire Chief George Rich, volunteer firemen, Lonoke police officers and city workers responded to the incident, according to the mayor.

McGee declined to name the victim, saying that she hadn’t been pronounced dead and next of kin hadn’t been notified. The city backhoe and trucks also stood by, but workers were working their way in deliberately to keep the tree from shifting. McGee said that several trees were down around town, but that he wasn’t aware of any electrical outages there.

James Thompson, spokesman for Entergy in Little Rock, said 40,000 customers lost power across the state including 2,900 in Jacksonville, 1,700 in Cabot and 1,800 in Beebe.

First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville reported 2,816 local customers out and 13,565 across all five districts of the cooperative. Besides rural Jacksonville customers, First Electric serves customers in Lonoke, rural Cabot, Ward, Austin and in White County.

“It blew a lot of trees on the lines and whipped a lot of lines together,” Thompson said. “We don’t have many like that.”

“Lines are twisted all over the state,” he said. Thompson could not say how long power would be affected, but said hopefully it would be on by the end of the day. “I don’t know, hopefully hours,” he said.

A spokesman for First Electric in Jacksonville said all crews were out in the district making repairs to downed lines and broken poles.

In Jacksonville, power was out along most of Main Street late afternoon and traffic slowed to a stop as signal lights were made inoperable. The Jacksonville Police Department, Gregory Place Shopping Center and Wal-Mart were all reported as having lost power. The police department regained power about 5:30 p.m. Jacksonville City Hall’s power remained on and the high, straight-line winds apparently did not affect early voting.

On Little Rock Air Force Base, Hangar 250 suffered roof damage. Public Affairs spokesman Ken Williams also said there was some housing damage and reports of trees down.

Jim Kulesa, with the Lonoke Sheriff’s Department, said power lines were down in Austin, Ward, Cabot, south of Carlisle and along Miller Road. He said a large truck trailer sitting on private property near Highways 70 and 31 had been blown over by the strong winds.

Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams, who was apprised of the situation in Cabot by staff members while he was out of town for a Metroplan meeting, said he planned to start on the remedy for the problem as soon as possible. “Our goal is to make sure when this thing is over that we get with the electric companies and make sure they tighten those lines,” the mayor said.

Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson said the showers of sparks that fell each time the lines touched had not caused any fires, but each time two lines touched, the power went off somewhere in town. At 3 p.m., Robinson was working the intersection of Rockwood and West Main where the traffic signal was out.

“People are cooperating pretty well, but it is a mess,” Robinson said.

Milton McCullar, Beebe street superintendent, was watching traffic on Main Street at 4:30 p.m. A Charter Cable line was hanging low there, McCullar said, and he was concerned that a big truck could break it. A power pole at the corner of Georgia and Cypress was broken at ground level, McCullar said, adding that the pole was still standing but swaying three feet in the wind. Thompson made no promises about restoring services. With power out in so many places, it could take a while.

“We’ve got crews working and they’ll be working around the clock,” he said.

In Lonoke County off Mt. Tabor Road, Kathy Burton said the shingles were off her house when she returned home about 4:30 p.m. and more damage was done to her mother’s house next door. Across the street, a metal carport was blown off a house. “The insurance adjuster has already been here,” Burton said.

At the Beebe Animal Shelter, a building reportedly collapsed from the high winds. Forty dogs were in the structure, but none apparently were hurt.

Leader staff writers John Hofheimer, Joan McCoy, Eileen Feldman, Aliya Feldman and Rick Kron contributed to this report.