Nine years later, Ice Storm of 2003 still terrifies

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 14, 2012 

Feb. 15, 2003 — exactly nine years ago Wednesday — lives in Lexington's collective memory as the day the power went out, the trees fell down and much of the city plunged into a week of frustrating darkness and freezing cold — a perfect ice storm of catastrophe.

Some might argue that the worst storm ever in Lexington was the 1998 surprise snow that dumped 11 inches on the city overnight. The ice storm of 2009 was more widely felt geographically.

But for a storm that changed Lexington's way of thinking about everything from where electrical wires should be to which faux fireplace to buy, it's hard to overlook the chaos that ensued after the ice swamp of 2003.

Nine years after Lexington and environs were coated in 1 to 2 inches of ice, snapping trees like swizzle sticks and leaving 146,000 people without power, the ice storm still has the power to terrify.

The local storm was considered part of the North American blizzard of 2003, but the destruction caused by the ice crippled the city long after temperatures began to rise.

Residents drove the streets in toasty vehicles to see which areas had electricity and how awful the destruction was. Many powerless streets took on the look of ice caves.

If — or better, when — another storm like that arrives, will we be better prepared? Will we be shivering in dark, drafty homes, bedding down in high school gyms, bunking with friends in unaffected areas and griping to anyone who will listen that we never even knew the name of that box that funnels power supply into our houses, much less that we were responsible for getting it fixed?

Then and now

One of the problems cited repeatedly during the ice storm's big week, Feb. 15 to 22, was that information about power outages was slow and imprecise. Not knowing was a huge problem in 2003.

Not any more, said Kentucky Utilities spokesman Cliff Feltham.

Instead of the paper maps and push pins of nine years ago, the company now has extensive electronic mapping and an upgraded customer information system. In 2003, Feltham noted, "Our system got hosed up very quickly."

In 2003, KU spent $22.5 million on recovery efforts.

The utility also was criticized for its tree-trimming cycle, lack of Spanish translation options and the inability of customers to reach KU to seek information on their first two or three tries.

Urban County Councilwoman Linda Gorton summed up the communication problems toward the end of the tumultuous week of the ice storm: "It's easier for people to accept some bad news than no news at all."

Lexington has made progress in "special-needs sheltering" — locating and accommodating people who have health conditions and chronic illnesses — said Steve Jackson, operations manager for Lexington's emergency management program.

The biggest challenge in 2003, he said, was figuring out how extensive the power outages were and how much help was needed.

Several departments in Lexington's government each were totaling $32,000 a day in overtime.

Were we ready? No

The storm unveiled an unfortunate truth about Central Kentucky living: Our homes were far enough from their rural roots to often be dependent on a single heat source — but not so far into the Internet age that technologically advanced maps of power outages were available.

There weren't automated phone systems to report outages and receive updates, and a communications tool that we take for granted today, the smartphone, was in its infancy, and few consumers had one.

Weren't power lines supposed to be buried?

This seemed like a great idea before many homeowners got the harsh news about how much it would cost to bury the lines.

KU will figure out the cost and make a presentation to neighborhoods interested in burying their power lines, Feltham said. But after residents get numbers on how much it will cost them to bury the lines — a figure that often is as much as the cost of their homes — their enthusiasm wanes, he said.

Feltham also said that KU was reluctant to start a patchwork of neighborhoods with some utilities buried while some are still above ground.

What are the odds of another ice storm?

The Lexington area has a chance of getting a 3/4-inch coating of ice once every 50 years, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1951, an ice storm dumped 2 inches of frozen rain and sleet on Lexington, topped by more than 7 inches of snow, and then temperatures dropped to minus 8. Technology advances do not alter the odds.

Weatherhead? What?

During the ice storm, Central Kentucky homeowners learned a new word: weatherhead. Often this was prefaced by a word not suitable for a family newspaper.

To review, a weatherhead is a service point for your electrical service feed to enter the house, usually with a boxlike covering connecting to the electrical service pipe. Repairing weatherhead damage is the responsibility of the homeowner, as many learned just when they thought their homes were returning to the land of the heated.

Who knew first that we were in for big trouble?

Corey Pieper, then a University of Kentucky meteorologist and now with the National Weather Service in Texas, noticed that the ice accumulation was coming faster than anticipated on the evening of Feb. 15, 2003, as he drove from his home in south Lexington to a north Lexington pet store. Reached last week, he remembers seeing precipitation freezing on car tops and thought, "This isn't good."

That night, he awoke to the sound of branches and trees snapping: "It sounded like giants were walking in the forest."

He was out early the next morning to see what had happened. "Being a weather nerd, I drove around," he said. "There was nobody around. It was surreal." His home didn't have electricity for 61/2 days.

"I still tell people about it," he said.

'It didn't look real'

Bill Meck of WLEX (Channel 18) said that he and a fellow forecaster were stunned by the data suggesting the mammoth ice storm was heading Lexington's way. "The magnitude of the icing potential was so extreme that it didn't look real on the computer model we preferred using," he said.

Later, Meck got a first-hand look at the ice storm's aftermath as he struggled to make his way to the station in north Lexington: "I woke up at 2 to head to the station and I already had two large magnolias bent over in the front yard (they would both later snap)," he said. "The normal 20-minute trip took about an hour and 15 minutes."

'The worst thing that ever happened to me'

UK employee Paula Dunn awoke after the ice storm to glance out the window of her north Lexington home and see her car encased in ice and surrounded by fallen trees. She stepped out on her deck in time to see her home's weatherhead get knocked out by a falling tree branch.

Her sump pump went out, causing flooding in her house that caused condensation on the upstairs walls. She argued with her insurance company about repairs that it insisted needed to be paid out of pocket before she could be reimbursed.

Dunn initially took shelter with a nearby friend, whose power then went out. She then stayed in a vacant apartment at UK, where she works, and then at a Holiday Inn hotel where she worked part-time.

Even nine years later, she still remembers the storm as "the worst thing that ever happened to me."

Pets had a hard time, too

Erin Miller, owner of The Crushed Violet Fragrance Boutique, was living with her husband and their cat in a bungalow on Richmond Avenue. Miller said that after the ice storm, hotels — "even the shady ones," she said — were full. A relative took in the couple, along with their cat, who had to live in the garage. But he escaped, taking Miller and her husband on a two-hour quest. They found him a block over and several houses down.

Let us praise vent-free fireplaces

Some people managed to stay cozy in at least a room or two of their homes, thanks to the ventless gas fireplaces that reflected heat back into the room. Some others discovered that their vented gas fireplace was largely decorative.

"There are a fair amount of people who still remember that event," said Ryan Ball, service manager at Denger's Hearth, Patio & Grill in Nicholasville.

Stores such as Denger's saw a boom in sales of ventless gas fireplaces right after the ice storm. The store has largely stopped selling heat-free vented gas logs, Ball said.

How did people pass the time?

Nine months after the great ice storm of 2003, Central Baptist Hospital saw a 10 percent increase in births. UK Chandler Hospital reported an increase of 25 percent in October 2003.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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