Cold comfort: KU, city were in the dark, too

Around midday Wednesday, Jan. 28, a huge sycamore fell from the yard of my neighbor two doors down, across our street, crushing a car, taking out a utility pole, downing a number of lines, whacking a transformer and shutting off electricity to my little part of the world.

Thus began six and a half cold days of discomfort, confusion, frustration and, too often, a desperate feeling we were not on anyone's radar.

I remember times as a reporter, covering something in a cold so intense that the ink wouldn't run in my pen or my fingers fumbled as I tried to turn pages in my notebook.

That's not the reason I don't have detailed notes about the chaos and frustrations of my days without electricity; but it could be, because I was very, very cold a lot of the time. The reason is, it wasn't a story, it was my life. So, excuse me if this is a little disjointed. It's a very subjective account.

I do have a couple of facts.

Sunday, Feb. 1, when my power had been out four days, I made my ritual daily call to Kentucky Utilities. An automated voice (I never heard any other until I finally called the Public Service Commission on the day power was restored) assured me that KU knew we were without power, had learned of it that very day.

I'd also taken to e-mailing KU daily to report our outage. Among other communications, that resulted in an e-mail two days after we got power, saying "it appears your power was restored last evening."

Funny maybe, but not comforting.

But some things were very scary. The most frightening was that we lived for days with dangerous lines on the ground, although we'd been assured otherwise. Within minutes of when the tree fell, my husband called KU and actually spoke to a human, who told him to stay far away from any downed lines.

Our dim understanding through the week was that the city wouldn't clear the tree blocking the road until KU certified the power was off in the lines. KU wouldn't come do anything to restore service, we understood, until the tree was moved. Deadlock.

On Friday afternoon, three days into the outage, I talked with someone at the city emergency-operations center who said they'd just learned that KU had verified the lines were dead and the city would move on the tree. Hope.

Saturday morning dawned cold, but bright, and my spirits rose when two city trucks with tree removing equipment arrived. There was ice on the inside of the window from which I observed their work. By 10:30 or so, the top of the tree was gone but at least half the street and the downed pole were still under what remained.

Then the trucks left, and did not return.

A herd of power company trucks appeared on our block at midday Monday. One workman told my husband that the downed lines had not been grounded and were very dangerous. He couldn't believe the city crew had even touched the tree, the situation was so dangerous. He pointed to his own prosthetic arm, indicating he'd lost the original messing around in this very type of situation.

This was five days after the lines had come down. Days in which my neighbors and I, our children, cats and dogs, had come and gone on that street, often in deep darkness.

He also told my husband this was the first time anyone from KU had actually been on-site to evaluate the situation. That day, the crew grounded the lines; the next day the rest of the tree was cleared from the street. About 8 p.m. a crew working valiantly in something approaching a blizzard turned the power back on.

There were good sides to this. Friends, neighbors and the High Street YMCA generously gave us food, shelter, laundry and hot showers. The dog got to sleep on the bed.

But for those who were warm and had only to flip a switch to have light, it's hard to describe the frustrations. Daily, KU and this newspaper had whiz-bang maps showing areas where power was out. Guess what? I knew I didn't have power. (Although, again, it wasn't clear KU knew that since my zip code was not on the map.) I wanted to know when I'd get it back.

Some companies can and do share information about where they're working, we reported. KU has even talked about it, particularly since the 2003 ice storm that knocked out 132,000 customers (including me). One reason KU threw out for not giving more specific information is that thieves or vandals might target powerless homes abandoned by their residents.

Let me tell you something: It's easy to tell who has power and who doesn't. You don't need to go online to figure that out; all you have to do is drive around after sunset.

Throughout, it seemed like KU and the city both lacked some basic information and didn't communicate what they did know well with each other. KU people were surprised when they got to our block at just how many homes and businesses were affected.

A city worker told my husband removing the tree wasn't a high priority because ours is a dead-end street. It's not. Our council person worked doggedly to get some reliable information but ran up against the same confusion.

I don't know when, but I am absolutely certain another ice or wind storm will knock out power for tens of thousands of Kentuckians one day. We've got to do better than this.