The number of people in the dark in Kentucky continued to grow Thursday as temperatures stayed well below freezing.
More than 607,000 customers were without power Thursday afternoon, surpassing the record set in September when Hurricane Ike's high winds toppled power lines in Louisville and Northern Kentucky, state officials said.
"It's constantly changing as some come back online and others go off," said Buddy Rogers, a spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.
The number of people without power fluctuated Thursday, as utility companies warned that it could take as long as two weeks for power to be restored in some areas. Many power companies were pulling crews from surrounding states to help.
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In Fayette County, 36,600 Kentucky Utilities customers were without power Thursday — a steep increase from the initial reports of 20,000 without power Wednesday morning. Blue Grass Energy reported that about 3,400 additional Fayette County customers remained powerless.
In the state's last major ice storm in 2003, higher temperatures followed the storm. This time, the ice has remained, and the weight continues to snap power lines and tree branches.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 customers, including Blue Grass Airport, came back online Wednesday night, but others lost electricity, KU spokesman Dave Freibert said.
"Several thousand will be back on today. Some will go without power for as much as a week," he said Thursday.
Critical needs met first
First priority is being given to restoring power to hospitals, nursing homes, emergency operations centers and water and sewer treatment plants, said Cliff Feltham, a spokesman for KU. Kentucky Utilities serves more than 140,000 Fayette County customers.
Restoration efforts were slowed by Wednesday's snow, which made it difficult for power companies to do helicopter surveillance of major transmission lines, a necessary first step to restoring power.
"We've been able to get choppers up, but the bad news is that we've got a lot of damage to our infrastructure," Feltham said. Before KU can restore downed power lines in neighborhoods, those major transmission wires — the superhighways of the electrical grid — have to be restored, Feltham said.
On Wednesday, Kentucky Utilities restored power to thousands of Western Kentucky residents only to have those same customers lose power later, Feltham said. That's frustrating for customers and the power company, he said.
Many utility companies have called in crews from neighboring states to help and say they are working around the clock to restore power.
But they say more crews are needed to keep up with the demand.
KU and Louisville Gas & Electric, which are subsidiaries of E.On, have crews from Kansas and Nebraska helping to restore power in Western Kentucky. Crews from Georgia and the Carolinas are in Central Kentucky to restore power to areas that have widespread blackouts, such as Boyle County.
"Most of those crews are already here," Feltham said. "There were some that were coming from the north, I think one from Michigan, that got caught in the winter weather in Ohio."
Combined, KU and LG&E have 15,000 downed power lines. They said 3,000 workers were trying to restore power for them throughout the state.
Feltham said the company is still looking for more crews to help. "Our welcome mat is always out."
Cold isn't helping
Power outages will continue as long as the blanket of ice coating much of the state remains. Warmer weather will not come until this weekend, forecasts indicate.
"As long as there is ice on the lines and on the trees, you're going to have more power outages," said Nick Comer a spokesman for East Kentucky Power Cooperative, whose distribution network includes 16 cooperatives in 87 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
The cooperative had 140,000 customers still without power on Thursday, down from 190,000 on Wednesday, Comer said.
Inter-County Energy, which serves Boyle, Marion, Casey, Lincoln, LaRue, Garrard and Mercer counties, was one of the hardest hit, with most of its system reporting widespread outages, Comer said.