Winter storm leaves many Switzerland County residents without electricity or water

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Depending on what part of Switzerland County you live in, when last week’s winter storm began on Tuesday, you saw either snow or rain. As evening fell, that rain turned to sleet and ice, and as trees began to cover over with a film of ice, heavy limbs began to fall over power lines. That caused more than 12,000 homes across Southeastern Indiana – including many here in Switzerland County – to lose electricity, many for as much as five days.

Representatives of the Southeastern Indiana REMC said that the cooperative had more than 100 workers out in the area as soon as the first problems were reported, and Barry Lauber of REMC estimates that more than 30,000 man hours were put in last week battling the problem – from the workers out in the field to office staff and support personnel.

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” Barry Lauber said. “We had over 100 workers out there in the ice and snow, and no one got injured in any way. We want to thank our customers for being understanding while we worked on the situation.”

Barry Lauber said that once tree limbs became encased in ice, the weight began to pull them down across power lines – which were also being covered in ice. When the ice forced the lines off of the utility poles, power was lost until the lines could be restored.

Barry Lauber said that the outages peaked on Wednesday afternoon, when just under 12,000 customers were without electricity spread over a seven county area. Here in Switzerland County, the northern portion of the county was hit the hardest, while nearly every REMC customer in the county suffered at least a temporary loss of service.

Making matters worse was that the loss of power meant that the Patriot Water Company could not run its pumps at its wells, causing many customers to also lose water availability.

Pam Hutchinson of Patriot Water said that about 2,000 customers were without water during the situation, with service being restored after about 18 hours.

Out on the county roads, Barry Lauber said that it was the goal of REMC to have everyone restored to service by Sunday night, and by midnight all homes were back online with the exception of a handful that had special needs that the cooperative needed to address.

Another matter hastening the process was that REMC only had about six utility poles break during the storm. A broken pole means much more time and labor; so workers only had to put the lines back on the existing poles. Workers did have to spend a great deal of time cutting and trimming trees in order to get to the power lines, a tedious process in frigid conditions.

“The biggest process was taking chain saws in the right of way and cutting trees to get to the lines,” Barry Lauber said. “Compound that with slippery, rugged, icy conditions, and it made the work very hazardous.”

Trying to keep its 3,200-miles of power lines operational, REMC coordinated the effort through line superintendent Norman Earls – a Switzerland County resident, and his assistant Steve Losey. Barry Lauber said that people need to remember that those low lying lines may have still be “live”, which means that a single line is carrying 7,200 volts of current.

“You don’t get a second chance when you’re dealing with that much power,” Barry Lauber said.

The coordination by Norman Earls was critical, because crews were all at different points around the area, and were working their way to the middle. As crews got closer to each other, Norman Earls and Steve Losey had to make sure that two crews weren’t working on the same line at the same time; and that every worker was accounted for at all times.

“There is no margin for error,” Barry Lauber said. “As the crews closed in from different directions, having been out there for four or five days in freezing temperatures and horrible conditions, the situation gets more and more intense. People get tired, but everyone made sure that no one cut corners in terms of safety.”

Barry Lauber said that once the rain turned to ice on Tuesday evening, approximately 70-percent of the power lines in Switzerland County iced over. Areas of the county along the Ohio River weren’t initially as bad because the river kept the temperatures a little higher than other areas of the county, but by Wednesday there was a full scale problem.

Out in the field, Switzerland County residents Alan Archer, a journeyman lineman; David Judy, an equipment operator; and Kurtis Gregory, an apprentice lineman; joined in the effort to get power restored as quickly as possible. Barry Lauber said that county law enforcement officials, EMS personnel, and many local volunteer fire departments also came to assist in the effort to keep roads clear while workers kept at their task.

The Bear Branch Volunteer Fire Department and chief Harry Althoff established a warming center for the REMC workers so that they could get in out of the cold, have some food and get some rest before heading back out. Harry Althoff is also the president of the REMC board of directors, so he was keenly aware of the problem.

Barry Lauber also said that Switzerland County school superintendent Tracy Caddell stayed in contact via email in order to assess the school situation with Switzerland County Elementary School. The two discussed the closing of the schools because of weather as well as power loss and water loss.

One of the criticisms that REMC faced during the situation was the perception that there could have been more crews out in the counties trying to get the power back on more quickly.

Barry Lauber said that every utility is different, and when crews come in from other areas to help, someone from the local utility who has knowledge of REMC’s power grid and other operations must serve as the leader for those visiting crews.

In this situation, Barry Lauber said that every qualified person was leading a crew, so even more additional workers would not have helped because there would have been no one to lead them.

Overall, Southeastern REMC has approximately 26,500 customers in this area, meaning that approximately half of the utility’s customers were without power during the storm.