More than 607,000 without power; state struggles to recover

Most of Kentucky remained encased in ice Thursday, and communities throughout the state clung to small victories as they struggled to chisel out.

Local officials from far Western Kentucky to Boyd County boasted about any hint of progress, whether it was clearing off all their major roads, getting cell phone service restored or managing to get water pumping again.

Still, an army of utility crews made frustratingly little progress in turning the lights and heat back on. The number of Kentucky electricity customers without power actually grew during the day, to a record 607,000 homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, the death toll climbed. At least six deaths in Kentucky have been blamed on the storm. Nationally, the winter storm has claimed at least 32 lives.

President Barack Obama issued a federal emergency disaster declaration for Kentucky and Arkansas late Wednesday. By noon Thursday, 50 generators large enough to power hospitals or water treatment plants arrived at Fort Campbell for distribution.

Five communication vans for emergency operations were on their way to Western Kentucky, where there were widespread cell and land-line phone outages. Federal Emergency Management Agency staff were expected to arrive soon to help with damage assessments.

About 1,000 Kentucky National Guard troops were dispatched throughout the state to clear debris and help with emergency operations.

In many hard-hit areas, packed hotels turned away people willing to pay to get out of the cold; other citizens without heat flocked to more than 100 public shelters across the state.

More than anything, what utility crews, local officials and shivering citizens needed was a break from Mother Nature, which hammered the area for three days with rain, ice and snow — and is expected to keep the freeze on until the weekend.

"The X factor remains the ice in the trees," said Cliff Feltham , a Kentucky Utilities spokesman. "As long as it's still there, we still have the risk of losing more customers as we gain others. We need a good warm spell to get the ice out of the equation."

This weekend appears to be the first real possibility of warmer days, with a high of 37 forecast for Saturday, and possibly 51 on Sunday.

Help from Washington

Gov. SteveBeshear said Thursday during a tour of Western Kentucky that Obama called him about 9 p.m. Wednesday and they spoke for about 10 minutes.

"I talked with him about the various trouble spots we had, the lack of drinking water in some places, having to get heat to many of our shelters and nursing homes, and the widespread power outages," Beshear said. "He expressed his concern for the folks of Kentucky and wanted to let everyone know his thoughts and prayers were with us all."

Obama completed the disaster emergency paperwork in less than an hour, Beshear said. Obama signed the declaration after 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. The disaster declaration will bring federal resources and staff to the state.

Federal officials are hauling truckloads of water, ready-to-eat meals and the large generators to a staging area at Fort Campbell in southwestern Kentucky, said Mary Hudak, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's southeast region.

The water trucks will help in some 55 water districts that don't have power. About 93,000 people statewide were without access to water by midday Thursday, said Monica French, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

Beshear said the federal government approved the state's request for FEMA to conduct damage assessments immediately, rather than the normal process of waiting for local officials to make the estimates first.

"It will move the federal reimbursement process along faster than it normally would," Beshear said.

Beshear traveled to Paducah and Henderson by Blackhawk hel icopter on Thursday. His mission was twofold: to get updates from local officials and to explain what the state is doing to help.

From the helicopter "you can't really see the real devastation on the ground: the downed power lines, people in shelters, people having to be moved from nursing homes to warm places," Beshear said.

'Money is not an object'

Beshear said it's too early to know how much this storm will cost the state. Later, he said that despite a budget crunch, which includes a $456.1 million shortfall, the state isn't sparing expenses in responding to the storm.

"In this kind of crisis, money is not an object," he said. "We're pulling out all the stops, and we'll worry about the cost later."

Secretary of Transportation Joe Prather urged that people be patient as road crews try to clear the streets and highways. He said 1,010 snow plows, including private contractors, are out on Kentucky roads.

At least one fatal accident was blamed on the storm.

Late Wednesday morning, Jennifer A. Powell of Monticello lost control on Ky. 1546 about 8 miles west of Monticello, said Deputy Sheriff David Worley. Her vehicle slid off the road, went into a creek and overturned.

She was taken to the Wayne County hospital and was transferred to the University of Kentucky Hospital, where she died Wednesday afternoon, Worley said. The cause of death was hypothermia, the Fayette County Coroner said.

Buddy Rogers, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said other deaths blamed on the storm included a Montgomery County man who was on oxygen; he died after power went out in his home.

A Harrison County couple, Norma Penwell, 62, and James Penwell, 64, were found dead Thursday, apparently the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home. A power generator was out of fuel in the basement.

In Ohio County, Rogers said, downed trees delayed an ambulance crew from reaching a home where a woman was found dead.

Nelson County Deputy Coroner Brian Papenfuss said an 87-year-old Bardstown woman was killed as she carried a heater up the stairs, lost her balance and hit her head on the concrete floor Wednesday morning.

A utility worker, not from Kentucky, was injured Thursday night when he fell about 40 feet while trying to restore power to a Madison County subdivision, according to a Madison County Fire Department employee.

Across the state, people turned to the government and their neighbors for help. In Lexington, where 40,000 customers were without power, 2,300 people called the city's LexCall help line, a 220 percent increase over a normal day.

Mike Turnbow, chief deputy sheriff in McCracken County, said many people have been calling police and the sheriff, asking officers to check on elderly neighbors.

"So far, so good," Turnbow said. "Many of the older people say, 'I'm fine. I've been through this before, and I'm not leaving.'"

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