Updated Sat, Jun 29, 2013 12:21 pm
On June 29, 2012, one year ago today, residents in Ohio and other Mid-Atlantic states felt the brunt of an extremely powerful storm and learned a new vocabulary word: derecho. The storm also tested the region’s emergency response plans to keep residents safe during the sweltering heat while electric was slowly restored.
According to a report published in January by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the derecho of historic proportions traveled for 700 miles, impacting 10 states and Washington, D.C. The storm produced wind gusts exceeding 80 mph and hit Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. the hardest.
The storm itself killed 13 people, mostly due to falling trees. An estimated 4 million customers were without power during a simultaneous intense heat wave, creating a life-threatening situation. The NOAA reports that 34 people died as a result of heat in the areas without power following the storm.
Following the storm, an estimated 660,000 American Electric Power Ohio customers were without service, including nearly 25,000 in Athens County alone. That equals about 90 percent of AEP’s customers in the county.
AEP Ohio brought in around 1,300 utility workers from across the United States and Canada to help remove downed trees and restore electricity. Some in the county were without power for 11 days.
Now, one year later, emergency professionals in Athens County reflect on how they responded and what steps they’ve taken to better prepare the county in case such a weather event happens again.
According to AEP Ohio spokeswoman Fay White, the utility company has been working to improve its infrastructure over the past year by replacing wires, utility poles and cross Ts.
She said that AEP is doing vegetation clearance on a more regular basis (every four years) and work is being done on AEP’s transmission and distribution systems to meet growing demand and to reinforce operations.
White added that the distribution investment rider approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio last year has allowed AEP to make such improvements.
Athens County Public Information Officer Dan Pfeiffer said that the city of Nelsonville wasn’t impacted as much by the derecho as the rest of Athens County. He said the water treatment plant lost power, but that the backup generator performed well.
Athens County Emergency Management Agency Director Fred Davis said the county learned many lessons following the derecho. He said the county learned to establish cooling (and warming) stations as an alternative to shelters.
Several cooling stations were established around Athens County to allow residents who didn’t have power to cool down in the air conditioning while charging their cell phones and other electronics.
“People tend to use these stations more often than going/staying at a shelter,” Davis wrote in an email to The Messenger.
One of those cooling stations was the Athens Community Center. Ron Lucas, deputy service-safety director for the city of Athens, said that as the city completes improvements to its waste water treatment plant, the power generator housed at the plant will be moved to the community center to ensure that the facility could be used in similar emergencies.
Lucas said that AEP’s response was “very good” following last summer’s storm and that the most critical facilities in the city had power restored rather quickly. Such facilities include O’Bleness Memorial Hospital and the waste water treatment plant and water treatment plant.
As the power restoration still took a while, Ohio University helped assist the city in providing resources, including a backup generator.
“The city and Ohio University worked really well together,” Lucas said. “Their assistance was vital.”
The city implemented water conservation measures during the power outage and Lucas said the city was about to hook up a generator from OU to the city’s water treatment plant when the power was restored.
Since the storm, Lucas said the city has discussed the need to have backup power installed at city hall, the Athens Police Department and the water treatment plant. He said the city is working with Perfection Group to get quotes on what such a system would cost.
The city is also working to make sure all water lift stations are uniformly wired so that a portable power generator can be used at all stations, Lucas said. There have also been discussions regarding backup batteries to allow traffic signals to function up to eight hours without electricity.
In the past year, Lucas said city officials have met with representatives from AEP to create a priority list for power restoration in case of another massive blackout. He said the priority list includes O’Bleness, the water and waste water treatment plants, and facilities or homes serving the elderly, disabled persons and those with infants.
According to Lucas, the most criticism surrounding the city’s response following the storm surrounded the release of public information. He said the city tried to keep information updated on the Internet, but with many people without power, the Internet wasn’t an option for some.
Lucas said that the county also utilizes its low frequency radio station — 1610 AM — to provide information to residents.
While communication may have been difficult for residents as some cellular towers around the county were also without power, Lucas said the power outage did not affect emergency communications among first responding agencies.
Davis said the county has worked over the past year to enhance its public information outreach, particularly purchasing the Everbridge Alerting System which will allow the county to alert residents in a variety of ways such as landlines, cell phones and text messaging.
Davis recommends that residents purchase battery-powered NOAA weather radios to stay informed following weather events. He also encourages residents to have a “seasonal awareness” depending on the time of year and what natural storms are likely to occur.
According to Davis, Le-ax Water and at least one village in the county have either purchased or enhanced their generators for emergency power. He added that the county has also strengthened its ability to track its disadvantaged population to monitor its needs during an emergency.
EMA has worked with county hospitals and clinics to address emergency response during a disaster and the county emergency operations plan has been updated since the derecho.
“It was a big learning experience,” Lucas said.