Kentucky's Ice Storm Worse in Aftermath

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Mike Lawrence / The Gleaner / AP

A tow truck assists a semi-tractor trailer truck on U.S. 60 East near Spottsville, Ky., where it had slipped off the shoulder and was in danger of sliding down a steep embankment,

Life has come to a standstill in Kentucky, and it's difficult to imagine just who in the Bluegrass State had the more miserable Super Bowl weekend. For those half-million residents who were still without power Saturday night (and 200,000 who were also reported to be without water), this past weekend involved shuttling between one of the estimated 172 emergency shelters that have been operating across the state since Wednesday. For utility crews who worked overtime through the weekend — battling subzero conditions Friday and Saturday — the challenge was not just repairing a few downed lines, but instead rebuilding a ravaged utility infrastructure from the ground up.

As for state officials, the weekend involved a rapid reassessment of just how dire the situation had become. Speaking out the day after some local municipalities decried a lack of federal or state emergency relief, Gov. Steve Beshear described the fallout from last week's ice storm as the state's largest-ever natural disaster. He then activated every last member of Kentucky's National Guard, dispatching all 4,600 Guardsman to assist with the statewide crisis. On Sunday, they were going door to door in some areas, to reach stranded citizens. But by Monday, there were still a quarter-million people without power, with scores of residents who had first attempted to ride out the storm now giving up and fleeing to shelters. (See pictures of the 2007 midwest ice storm.)

Most reports of the chaos have focused solely on the numbers: 700,000 Kentuckians thrown into the dark last Tuesday, nearly 200,000 of those concentrated in Louisville alone, with more than a dozen deaths now being investigated. But behind those statistics, Louisville residents on Sunday — without power for yet a sixth day in a row — described a city struggling to adapt to a new status quo. Fuel shortages and restrictions were common at the busiest gas stations. Along many city streets, entire rows of cars were frozen in place, trapped under fallen tree trunks and branches. Some citizens made use of facilities at the University of Louisville to charge portable electronic devices. Students who had lost power watched the Super Bowl Sunday evening in the Rauch Planetarium. The city's Oxmoor Center may have well been the busiest shopping mall in America this weekend: it became a temporary haven for powerless residents seeking a place to warm up while they window shopped. (See pictures of weird and wacky weather)

Some like Erin Schuster, 28, a doctor living on Louisville's east side, have been forced to impose on friends fortunate enough to still have power, setting up camp in their apartment. Schuster says she went to bed last Monday well aware that a powerful ice storm was bound for Louisville, but she was shocked the next morning by the breadth of the damage. "You heard a lot of cracking, but when I finally made it outside, you realized that it wasn't branches that were breaking but entire trees that were snapping in half" under the weight of the ice.

As trees broke and power lines went down, state officials started to scramble. By Wednesday morning, President Obama had been notified about Kentucky's state of emergency. On Sunday afternoon, Schuster, still without power, was surprised to see that work crews — some apparently dispatched from Alabama — were erecting new utility poles next to the fallen poles that had not yet been cleared away. Neighbors told her that the utility crews reported seeing the same sight on every block — decimated power and communication lines that had to be entirely rebuilt. (Residents in rural Kentucky regions were informed Sunday that it may be weeks and, in some rare cases, months until their electricity is restored)

Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Gov. Beshear's office said late Saturday night that Kentucky was in the grip of "the biggest natural disaster in the state's history,' and that it was a crisis of not only electricity but of communication. "This is a situation that's awesome in scope. Ninety of 120 counties are declared emergencies, and it's becoming an issue of communication. Communication towers and lines have gone down, whole communication systems have been devastated," which made it difficult to assess conditions and target relief efforts. He also acknowledged that given the breadth of the emergency, some municipalities had been slow in receiving aid. "There's a level of frustration at the local level, and that's completely understandable, but we're currently assessing how best to assess what capacity we need, and how best to move in the equipment that will provide enough electricity."

Perhaps no one in the state was more frustrated than Randell Smith, the emergency management director of Grayson County in western Kentucky, who told the Associated Press Friday that they had yet to receive any aid from either the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross. As for the 25 National Guardsman who had arrived in his county, Smith said they did not have any of the equipment needed to clear away fallen trees. "Disgusted" was the word that the mayor of Leitchfield, Ky., William Thomason, used to describe his frustration with state and federal officials.

As for Schuster, who lives in one of the state's most densely populated areas, she says she's not sure when life will return to normal. On Sunday, the traffic lights in her neighborhood were not working (she's seen several drivers fail to stop at intersections) and she had not been to work in a week (she was told by her clinic to remain at home, rather than risk the icy, treacherous drive into work). That's the same message that went out to Louisville's public school students; classes for the remainder of last week were called off by Wednesday morning. Schools were still closed Monday.

Basic communication, meanwhile, has ground to a halt. Schuster says that many of her friends' cell phones don't work, given the ways in which the electrical outages have affected cell towers. Without televisions to rely on, many people are turning to the radio for updates. She's kept in touch with many of her friends via Facebook — "just about anyone who lives in Louisville has updated their status to talk about what they've seen, or to tell people where they're staying." As the week-long waiting game continues, Schuster says it's the small miracles that are still making people smile: "My roommate works at a Dollar Store, and they've moved the microwave up front so people without power can come in, buy frozen meals, and then cook and eat them right there, on the spot."

See pictures of severe storms that rocked the Midwest.