Western Kentucky crippled by storm

HENDERSON — While responding to a chimney fire late Wednesday night, two Henderson fire trucks and an ambulance slid off an icy county road and got stuck. Then the tow truck dispatched to rescue the ambulance joined it in the ditch.

Those kinds of trials, brought on by this week's winter storm, have made every rescue or power restoration effort an adventure.

So far, though, the endings have been mostly good.

"We did save the house," said Phil Stephens, one of the volunteer firefighters who responded to the chimney fire. "I don't know how, but we did."

From end to end, Kentucky faces the enormous task of shaking off this week's winter storm from its road, power and water infrastructure. But no region has been crippled as badly as the western region.

"Western Kentuckians have been hit really hard by the storm, and it's going to take several days for them to get back on their feet," said Gov. Steve Beshear, who flew by Blackhawk helicopter to survey the damage.

A majority of residents in the counties farthest west have been without electricity for at least 48 hours, and some are facing as much as two more weeks without it. Phone and power lines are strewn about in McCracken County with many utility poles lying in pieces.

Customers with AT&T cell phone service — who happen to be the majority in the region — haven't been able to get signals consistently since early Tuesday.

Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, the state's adjutant general, said AT&T reported as many as 220 of its cell sites and a slew of its circuits were down mostly because of power outages.

The electric companies in Western Kentucky are particularly overwhelmed.

Virtually everyone in Calloway County remained out of power Thursday, said Judge-Executive Larry Elkins.

"The problem is a major feed line into the county — a major transmission line — is broken," he said. "Once we get that main transmission line repaired, then we can find out where the smaller problems are. And that's still a huge number."

Murray State University, in Calloway County, lost power and canceled classes. It still has several thousand students in shelters after the university closed its powerless dorms and shut off the water so pipes wouldn't freeze, Beshear said after speaking, on a Verizon cell phone, with Murray State President Randy Dunn.

Because many local water districts in Western Kentucky have been without electricity, tens of thousands of residents don't have running water and have been forced into shelters.

On the helicopter trip from Paducah to Henderson, Tonini showed Beshear a Blackberry message he received about Meade County, which had 82 people in a shelter, no power in most of the county, spotty cell phone service and a water district that couldn't pump to residents or nearby Fort Knox.

"Sounds like they might be a candidate for a generator or two," Beshear said.

The state distributed its available large-scale generators soon after the storm hit early Tuesday, but 50 more arrived from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Thursday.

But by noon Thursday, Muhlenberg, Hopkins and Caldwell counties reported running out of fuel for their generators, Tonini said.

Caldwell County also used up its extra supply of water.

Fuel was becoming a big worry.

"The gas stations that have gas have no power. The stations that have power have no gas," said J.T. Coleman, McCracken County sheriff's deputy.

Drivers lined up 5 to 10 cars deep at several gas stations in Paducah's main shopping area on U.S. 60 near Kentucky Oaks Mall on Thursday.

McCracken County Sheriff's deputies shuttled Beshear and National Guard leaders, including Tonini, through some of the hardest-hit areas of the county.

They stopped at the intersection of Fisher and Childress roads, where a utility pole had snapped in three places. At least four wires lay across Childress Road. And local residents had to clean a small forest worth of trees and limbs off Fisher Road just to make one lane passable.

"Just imagine how long it will take to fix just this 1,000 square yards," said Tonini.

In Paducah and Henderson, weary local officials met Beshear with smiles and pleas. "Hi, governor. We've got some problems," state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, said as he shook Beshear's hand. "We need your help."

A majority of Henderson residents remained in the dark Thursday, and the main shelter at the Wolfs Banquet and Convention Center was overflowing with 60 cots for 125 people. One reason for the influx of refugees: Emergency crews had to evacuate a Henderson subdivision after Stephens, the volunteer fireman, found a fallen tree that had ruptured a gas main.

"The pipe was busted wide open. It was spewing gas — you could hear it," Stephens said. Soon after notifying gas and emergency officials about the leak, Stephens was called to the chimney fire, which kept him out until 3 a.m. Thursday. Three hours later, Stephens was on duty clearing debris from roads with his National Guard unit.

For Stephens it was just "a day's work," he said.