Mark Gauldin, operations manager for Temple Electric's Kansas and Missouri locations, was exhausted in the aftermath of the ice storm that pelted Kansas City during the last three days of January. “I didn't know what day it was. When you don't go home, you just don't know,” Gauldin said.
Frozen tree limbs crashed on power lines and ripped the meter housings apart from homes, leaving around 400,000 homes and businesses without power.
Gauldin said the storm repair work was a “whirlwind.”
Along with battling power outages at three of its four Kansas City metropolitan locations, the Dallas-based utility-specialist distributor supplied utilities with transformers, wires, poles, meters, sockets, ties and wraps.
Temple Electric supplies Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L), the utility supplying the majority of the metropolitan area's electricity, with about 80 percent of its material. During and after the storm, Temple had a person on site at KCP&L facilities and at other utilities, including Western Resources and Utilicorp. Temple pulled stock from its other locations around the country, including Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
“We had enough materials for the first three days, and after that we basically moved material in and out,” Gauldin said.
Temple's customers were surprised how quickly the material got to them, he said. “Many people complained that KCP&L was slow in getting the power back on, but I don't think people have any idea what it takes to move materials. They had 300 crews working, and that's pretty phenomenal. This will be one that they'll be writing about in the record books.”
Gauldin said a well-timed acquisition helped Temple Electric service the need for utility products. “A Kansas City utility distributor went bankrupt here several months ago, and we purchased their inventory and facility. There's probably a million dollars of material that we had to pull from. We really had a gold mine, but we didn't realize it at the time.”
In addition, the company had hired new staff and had rented moving trucks for a move to a larger facility. The extra workers, inventory and trucks sure came in handy in the aftermath of the storm. Temple Electric had wondered what they would do with their excess inventory, but because of the ice storm, they moved $1 million of material in two days.
“Our branch here normally does $20 million (per year). We're going to do a third of this year's business in a month's time. The last time an ice storm hit people said, ‘We had a good year this month.’ That's about what it will amount to.”
Distributors weren't the only ones in the electrical industry working hard.
The phone was ringing off the hook at Tann Electric.
John Tann, president and owner of Tann Electric, said all 15 of his electricians responded to the disaster, the worst ice storm in Kansas City's history.
Tann Electric, a 10-year-old service company in Lenexa, Kan., specializes in electrical and datacom work for residential customers. In the first few days of the ice storm, amid freezing rain and pitch-black neighborhoods, Tann's customer service crew handled hundreds of phone calls.
“The thing that I've compared it to is the Jerry Lewis Telethon,” Tann said. “We tried to handle every call that came in.”
Tann Electric temporarily lost power, but with its computers on backup and its phone system still in operation, they continued to take service calls.
“We had a few less lights, but we kept on going,” Tann said.
The Lenexa, Kan.-based division of McBride Electric, an electrical contracting company with corporate offices in San Diego, also was busy with storm repair work. Robin Yessen, McBride Electric's division manager, said the company spent much of its time in the early days of the storm's aftermath rebuilding service entrances. “The ice storm pulled a lot of meter housings away from homes,” he said. “KCP&L asked us to bring the meter housings back to code.”
He added that there were some concerns about utilities doing “quick-fix repairs” to restore service.
The danger of fire was also of real concern for electrical contractors and homeowners, Tann said.
“One of the fire departments here in town said it had more fires in five days than in the last five years,” he said. “In one case, the service came down and then they got arcing on the back of their house.”
Very few of Tann's customers had backup generators, but they may think about getting them now that Kansas City has had two crippling ice storms in five years.
“This might make them think more about putting up a permanently installed backup system or a temporary backup system where they can roll a generator outside and bring a cord in and throw a transfer switch and be powered back on,” Tann said.
Behind the scenes, manufacturers and reps kept things going as well.
Thomas Hiemer, principal and owner of TM Sales, a rep agency in North Kansas City, Mo., with a strong focus on utility work, said his manufacturers were “working around the clock” to make the products that utilities need to restore power.
“We worked all through the weekend (of the storm) to bring material in and allocate it to the various utilities and the various customers,” he said. “There were thousands of lines and poles that were down. Of course, to replace them, you need ground wire. We have a manufacturer of bare copper that worked all through that weekend to get bare copper for grounding to the utilities.
“Milbank Manufacturing makes the sockets, and thousands of those were pulled off the wall. Each utility has its own specifications, so we took substitute meters available from all over the country to all the utilities to have them sign off that, ‘Yes, this meter will work with this modification.’
“Our manufacturers were extremely responsive, especially Millbank Manufacturing, Allen Wire, and Tyco. You can't turn the power back on in the home unless you've got a new socket to put the new meter in. You've got to ground all the transformers, and you can't do that without the ground wire, and you can't hook up the wire without the hardware. Plus, we were supplying the overhead wire too. It was real interesting.”
Hiemer said that while the Kansas City metropolitan area has had some big ice storms over the years, no other storm has been of this magnitude.
“Just from the ice storms we have had in the past, we knew that we needed to gear up, so we contacted our manufacturers and said, ‘Get ready. Can you put some extra manufacturing capacity just for our type of products?’ They did, and it paid off big dividends.”
He added that with some of the utility products that were in highest demand, his company did three to four months of business in four or five days.
“This was the storm of the century,” he said. “We've had them bad before, but not to this extent. A large tree that has an inch and a half of ice on it, that could be an extra six tons of weight. When six tons comes down on top of a power line, it's not going to withstand that.”
Capital Electric Line Builders, a Kansas City, Mo.-based power line contractor, helped deal with those downed power lines and trees. Capital Electric reported directly to the utility companies, which have disaster plans in place in the event of an emergency, such as a severe ice storm.
“A utility company's disaster plan is a very comprehensive and involved plan that has evolved over many, many storms,” said Bob Asher, executive vice president of Capital Electric Line Builders.
Initially, Capital Electric Line Builders and other local crews worked through the night to restore power to homes and businesses. For the next week, the Capital Electric team restored primary circuits and secondary circuits. The team also placed new poles and installed new wires and terminations for the restoration of transmission circuits. Capital had a peak of 110 linemen working on the ice storm.
“We normally tried to hold it at 16 hours a shift, but sometimes it ran a little longer,” Asher said. “At one point, we actually ran some crews 24 hours around the clock. We tried to get them at least eight hours rest so if they work 16 on and eight off, it's a much safer situation than working them around the clock.”
Safety became paramount during the ice storm, which caused severe damage to trees and power lines. Some of Kansas City's historic tree-lined neighborhoods got hit the hardest. Asher said the trees were more responsible for bringing down the power lines than the ice.
“The biggest safety problem is what are called ‘hangers,’ which are tree limbs that haven't fallen yet, but are liable to at any moment,” Asher said. “If a crew would be working on a line and those hangers would let loose and fall, it could be very dangerous. Just normal line work, even in good weather, is extremely dangerous anyway. This just makes it more dangerous.
Despite the danger, Capital Electric did not have any major injuries during the ice storm.
“While the danger factor increases considerably, I think the men become also inherently more safety-conscious,” Asher said. “We're very lucky. I think we had one little smashed finger, but that was about all. Another big thing is vehicle accidents on the ice, but the ice melted off the streets pretty quickly.”
Work to restore power to customers continued for several weeks after the end of the storm.
In the event of a major storm such as the one Kansas City endured in January, distributors should be prepared to both care for their own needs and meet the needs of customers. Natural disasters and power outages can cause a variety of problems. Here are a few tips to help prepare for emergencies:
Back up your computer files to disc. And most importantly, store them somewhere else in case of flood or fire.
Have the ability to make handwritten receipts for purchases.
Make sure your larger customers have your home, mobile or pager numbers for those late-night emergencies.
Prepare an evacuation plan and hold regular drills.
EMERGENCY ITEMS AND PRODUCTS TO KEEP IN STOCK
An emergency preparedness manual (www.fema.org has many such publications)
Battery-operated radio and extra batteries
Flashlight and extra batteries
Shut-off wrench, to turn off gas and water
Hammer, nails, pliers, duct tape, wire and ropes
Map of the area
Wire ties and wraps