525,000 in state, 36,500 in city lose power

A 36-hour barrage of ice, snow and freezing rain snapped power lines across Kentucky, leaving at least 525,000 electric customers out of power — a figure that still could grow if the frigid temperatures persist.

Many Kentuckians could be in the dark for as long as a week or two, especially those in rural Western Kentucky, which was hit hardest.

The storm produced the second-worst power outage in Kentucky history, surpassed only by September's high winds left over from Hurricane Ike, which knocked out power to 600,000.

Having the two biggest power outages in state history within six months of each other "is just mind-boggling to me," said Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for the Kentucky Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities and was tracking outages throughout the day.

In Lexington, patches of the city were without power all day, leaving at least 36,500 homes and businesses without light and heat.

The weight of more than half an inch of ice and a layer of snow wreaked havoc on Lexington-area power lines and tree branches.

That conjured up memories of the February 2003 ice storm, in which as much as 2 inches of ice accumulated on branches and power lines in Lexington. But that storm wasn't nearly as widespread as this week's winter blast.

Nearly the entire state was affected — from the Jackson Purchase Energy Corp. in far Western Kentucky, more than half of whose customers were without electricity, to Kentucky Power in Eastern Kentucky, where 32,000 homes and businesses remained in the dark late Wednesday.

Some customers in the Ashland area — including Boyd, Carter, Lawrence and Greenup counties — might not have their power restored until next Wednesday, Kentucky Power spokeswoman Delinda Borden said.

Kentucky Utilities Co. and its sister company, Louisville Gas & Electric, reported that a combined 275,000 of their customers were without power Wednesday afternoon.

"I think we're going to see an increased count by (Thursday) morning," Chris Whelan, spokesman for the utilities' parent company E.ON U.S., said at a 4 p.m. news conference.

Low temperatures that are expected to persist for the next few days will complicate utility crews' repair efforts by keeping ice and snow locked on branches and power lines, increasing the chances of more downed lines.

LG&E and KU faced at least 10,400 downed lines, which was 1,000 more than in 2003, Whelan said. The companies have recruited more than 1,100 utility workers from Southern states and Michigan to help.

Crews from KU, which serves more than 140,000 customers in Fayette County, were trying to repair service to more than 30,000 customers in Lexington, where four major substations went down early Wednesday.

Restoring power to all the homes around Lexington will take days, said KU spokesman Cliff Feltham.

The bigger challenge for KU remains Western Kentucky, where more than 100,000 homes and businesses were without power and likely to stay that way for days.

"We're talking a week to two weeks, depending on the location," Feltham said.

Rural terrain, where long transmission wires have been weighed down by the ice, makes restoration difficult, he said.

The region had been virtually shut down by the combination of treacherous roads, widespread power outages and little phone service.

Much of rural Central Kentucky and parts of Eastern Kentucky also were left in the dark.

About 190,000 of East Kentucky Power Cooperative's 511,000 customers had no electricity Wednesday, said spokesman Nick Comer.

Nearly all of the 16 smaller distribution cooperatives that are members of that umbrella organization reported outages. Its most crippled utility remained Inter-County Energy, which serves Boyle, Marion, Casey, Lincoln, LaRue, Garrard and Mercer counties.

"Virtually their entire system is out," Comer said.

Another of East Kentucky Power's utilities, the Bards town-based Salt River Electric Cooperative, reported 33,000 of its 44,000 customers out of power, he said.

The cooperative that covers a sliver of Fayette County — Nicholasville-based Blue Grass Energy — recruited out-of-state crews to help restore power to more than 30,600 customers. Blue Grass serves parts of 23 counties.

"Obviously it's going to be a matter of days for some customers because of the scope of these outages," Comer said. "This is a very serious situation — a catastrophic storm. So we ask customers to still be patient and understand that the crews are working as fast as we can."