After three days of exhaustive around-the-clock power restoration, several CU crews rested Friday night in order to prepare for the start of a weekend full of toil Saturday morning.
Although restoration numbers slowed after dark Friday, some 120 customers did regain electric service. This reduced the number of Cleveland Utilities customers still struggling without power to 3,735, according to Tom Wheeler, CU general manager.
“It looks like we are set for a nice day weather-wise and we anticipate significant progress in lowering the number of customers without power,” Wheeler said early Saturday. “Our plans are to concentrate our efforts in the more heavily damaged areas along Dalton Pike, Waterville Highway and Benton Pike. We will also have several service crews catching scattered outages that are located throughout our entire system.”
The utility cavalry arrived throughout the day Friday as communities and public utility companies from four states dispatched their own line crews to assist in returning needed infrastructure to Cleveland and Bradley County, a community struggling to regain its footing in the wake of last Wednesday’s deadly EF-4 tornadoes that killed nine people, destroyed at least 285 homes and damaged several hundred more. Ten businesses also reported damage, some extensive.
These numbers were expected to rise as Cleveland-Bradley Emergency Management Agency damage assessment teams continued their work Saturday and were pushing to complete their complicated task by the close of the weekend.
Line crews are now working in the Cleveland Utilities service area from Orlando, Fla. (four crews); Leesburg, Fla. (two crews); Owensboro, Ky. (two crews); Henderson, Ky. (one crew); and Harriman (one crew).
“These crews came in here well-equipped and my heartfelt thanks goes out to all of them for rendering aid to our community in our time of need,” Wheeler said.
Their ranks now shored up by the out-of-town crews, CU workers are continuing their counter-assault against the devastation left by last week’s deadly twisters.
“Our Cleveland Utilities employees continue to put forth maximum effort as they all work together to restore power to our electric distribution grid,” Wheeler said. “My thanks goes out to all of them for what has been accomplished to date in repairing the system.”
The good news is crews are making a significant dent restoring the power grid and their efforts are being compounded by their outside brethren. The bad news is Cleveland Utilities could be looking at another week or more before electric service has been restored to all customers.
“We are probably looking at another seven to 10 days to have 100 percent of our customers back on line,” Wheeler said. “A better assessment can be made after we evaluate what gets accomplished today (Saturday).”
Wheeler said overall, CU customers are remaining patient — in spite of the odds his line crews face.
CU’s sister power distributor, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, whose crews are also battling to restore full power service to more than 3,000 rural Bradley County customers, reported Friday that damage to their power distribution grid exceeds that caused 18 years ago by the historic “Blizzard of ’93” that paralyzed Bradley County and the entire Southeast Tennessee region. VEC provides electric service to customers in a 17-county region.
“My thanks also goes out to our Cleveland Utilities customers who have for the most part been understanding of the tremendous task we have in restoring electric power,” Wheeler said. “Starting with more than 17,000 customers out of service on the first day, the progress has slowed as we work on the most heavily damaged areas.”
Wheeler stressed CU’s goal is to restore power as quickly as possible to all customers, but that “... someone will be last in getting their power restored.”
He added, “As of this moment our restoration strategy is to concentrate on work in areas that will return the most people back to normal as quickly as possible. For customers who are located in an area that has few people out of service, chances are we will not be in their area for some time, so we ask that everyone please bear with us.”
In a previous statement last Thursday after CU crews had already restored power to 70 percent of the distribution grid within 24 hours of the tornado outbreak, Wheeler cautioned that areas still without electric power at that time “ ... should be thinking (in terms of) days, not hours.”
VEC leaders are telling much the same story.
Vice President of Operations Clyde Jolley explained VEC’s protocol in restoring its power distribution grid in times of massive outages when caused by extensive storm damage.
“It’s probably particularly frustrating for someone whose power is out and they see that their neighbors all have power,” Jolley said Friday. “But we focus our crews in a way to get higher-volume outages addressed first. If our crews can spend one hour getting 50 people back on or spend that same hour getting five people back on, we’re going to address the problem that affects 50 people first.”
As of Friday morning, VEC was still working to restore power to 3,409 customers in Bradley County. The number was expected to drop significantly through Friday, Friday night and Saturday.
Like Cleveland Utilities, VEC is also getting the assistance of out-of-town line crews, some from as far away as Arkansas.