Massive ice storm hits
Community sticks together, re-emerging from staggering weather event

Friday, February 6, 2009
Highway 49 is made impassable by numerous downed poles

A massive ice storm that is being called the worst in state history struck North Arkansas last Tuesday, with Clay County certainly ranking among the areas impacted the most.

Gov. Mike Beebe flew into Piggott last Friday after viewing the devastation from the air. He said Clay was the only county in the state with 100 percent loss of power. The governor pledged support from appropriate state agencies and personally contacted local officials by phone numerous times over the past several days to receive updates on relief efforts.

Beebe was accompanied by State Rep. Mike Patterson, Atty. Gen. Dustin McDaniel and other state officials. They were joined at the airport by Congressman Marion Berry, who had driven in from Memphis earlier in the day. "To say this is a disaster is just a gross understatement," Berry noted of his observations. "It was obvious that the farther north we went the worse conditions were," Berry said.

Under the weight of heavy ice, lines sag and utility poles fall near the Rector Community Center on Highway 49

Beebe and his entourage arrived by way of two Army Blackhawk helicopters and met with leaders from across the region. "We're here to insure that you have what you need, you just need to tell us what that is," he told those on hand, including the mayors of Piggott, Rector, Corning, Marmaduke and Datto, along with other regional and local leaders.

Virtually all areas of the county remained without electricity as of Tuesday as hundreds of electrical workers for Entergy, Clay County Electric and Piggott Municipal undertook the massive task of reconstructing the power grid.

Over the weekend, the recovery effort was in full swing, with manpower and equipment moving into the region from far and wide. Members of the Arkansas Army National Guard (initially headquartering in Rector) also joined the effort on Saturday, and there was also help from a crew from the Mississippi County Work Release Center. The Guard's primary objective was to go house to house through the county checking on the condition of residents and helping to meet their immediate needs. The Guard operates a county-wide briefing at 10 each morning at the community center, an event attended by the county judge, area mayors and other officials. Police chief Glenn Leach served as the city's liaison with the National Guard.

The Mississippi County group, under the direction of county judge Gary Howell, cleaned up around both Piggott school campuses, the courthouse, the hospital and then moved on to Rector. While here, they worked at the school and at the disaster shelter at the Rector Community Center. This week the workers were helping in Corning, and afterward Howell indicated that they would continue to help in the smaller towns and on other public lands within the county.

David Burnett, customer service manager for the Walnut Ridge district of Entergy, was in Rector on Tuesday to update city officials on the restoration of power, indicating the major trunk lines along Highways 49 and 90 should be repaired and reconstructed by Wednesday (today), while it would be later in the week before all homes in the community have electricity.

The company also set up a customer information center at the Rector Community Center to answer questions concerning power outages and restoration. The center will be open later in the week at the First Baptist Church of Rector.

Electrical personnel from throughout the region have been swarming across the community in the past two days, working feverishly to replace poles and lines. The operation has its headquarters at Delta Cotton Coop in Marmaduke, serving that city, as well as Rector, Corning, Greenway and St. Francis.

City officials expressed gratitude to Entergy and its employees and contractors who brought in such a massive force of personnel and material to get the task done as quickly as possible.

Anthony Coy, northeast area coordinator for the Arkansas Dept. of Emergency Management, pointed out that this disaster is different from many others because of its widespread effect in Arkansas. A total of 48 counties have been declared a federal disaster by President Barack Obama. A startling 352,000 homes were without power at one time in Arkansas.

"In disasters that affect only a single community or limited area (such as a tornado), there is a lot of help available from neighboring areas," Coy said. "This is not the case with this ice storm because it affects so many counties in the state."

Coy has spent much time in Rector and other Clay County communities working to provide services from ADEM while working with Judge Howell and county OES coordinator Travis Boyd. State Rep. Mike Patterson also has been in Rector repeatedly and was instrumental in obtaining the National Guard presence here.

Storm Hits

The ice storm struck late Monday night and continued in its intensity through the day Tuesday and on into Wednesday. Before it was over, the entire region was coated in a sheet of ice with devastating affect to trees and thousands utility poles and power lines in the county.

The main electrical trunk in Rector, running along Highway 49, collapsed under the weight of ice at about 3 a.m. Wednesday. Entire blocks saw downed power lines in the community, with massive damage to trees.

Thousands of electrical poles were down throughout Clay County, with many rural roads impassable because of falling trees and electrical lines.

The entire county was described as looking like a "war zone" by all who witnessed the damage. Relief officials touring various areas of the state clearly were shocked by what they saw in Clay County, noting that damage here was more severe than other areas.

"It seems that Rector and parts of Clay County were indeed ground zero as far as the intensity and affects of the storm," said Rector mayor Ron Kemp. "The fact that 100 percent of our county residents were without power initially speaks to that," Kemp said, "and it continues to prove to be a very formidable task to restore that electricity in this area."

The damage clearly exceeds the ice storm of December 2002, an event still clear on the minds of this community. Other major ice storms in Arkansas history were in 2000 (with the worst damage in Central Arkansas), in 1957 and then all the way back to 1932. But all weather observers agree the area covered by this storm, its intensity and the ultimate damage make it the worst in state history.

Missouri also was hard-hit by this storm, with some 120,000 customers without electrical power. Kentucky was devastated by the ice storm, with an incredible 700,000 customers losing electrical connection.

Community Shelter

Rector was more fortunate than some other communities in the area due to three large generators purchased by the city government about three years ago. The permanent generators are located at the community center and city hall, with a portable generator serving the water-sewer system. As a result, the city had a communications center available at all times at city hall, a disaster shelter at the community center and regular water-sewer service throughout the emergency.

"Losing electricity is a very difficult situation for any community," Kemp said, "but having water and sewer service certainly makes it more bearable."

An overnight shelter was set up Wednesday at the community center, with anywhere from 10-20 persons staying there each night. A food service system quickly was established, manned entirely by local volunteers. Food initially was obtained through Harps food store manager Shayne Roofe. The store's cooling system was out and he brought items to the shelter for cooking. Later, the shelter obtained food from the Rector School District, which also was out of power in its cooler. Superintendent Rob Louder obtained permission from the state to use the food in that manner.

What started as a small number of people arriving for food turned into a major undertaking as hundreds started coming to the shelter for three meals a day. As the crowds grew, so did the volunteer help -- amazingly so. Some days saw as many as 1,000 people served hot meals.

Mayor Kemp asked Teresa Roofe to serve as shelter director and she organized a large group of volunteers to take care of the various tasks. Sarah Burdin served as her assistant. Reuben Seay took care of the kitchen for the first day and David Cagle stepped in to help the second day. Roofe said others there who spent many hours cooking were Sam Boyd, Nate Henderson, Rhonda Haney, Vicki Gipson, Huston and Nita Bowden, Carolyn Seay, Ellen Meadows and Anthony Linam. Nelda Chadwick continued her long-term operation of the community center and all went smoothly. Also in the volunteer mix were a group of local teenagers who were there every time the serving began.

"The dedication of all these volunteers was just amazing," mayor Kemp said. "I always knew Rector was a great community full of giving people, but this topped anything I have ever seen. I was especially pleased to see so many young people stepping up to help their fellow townspeople. That is something I will never forget.

"There are lots of people to thank, but the community owes a special commendation to Teresa, who stepped in and gave so much to others in this difficult time," Kemp said.

Other services that took place during the week included a door-to-door canvas of the town originally organized by ministers Ardell Polk and Marston Carpenter and fire chief Huston Bowden. Members of all churches took part in the effort to check on the condition of local residents. The Rector Fire Dept. also helped with that effort, a process that eventually was turned over to the National Guard.

An offshoot of that effort was the organization of delivering food to those in need around the community. That also was undertaken by area churches under the direction of Michele Haley.

While organizing the community canvas, the ministers also suggested a special church service Sunday morning at the community center. The event drew some 300 people and featured a sermon by local minister Velda Bell, congregational singing and a special group of youth singers that included Susie Bell, Gabrielle Haney, Harmony Cagle and Morgan Meadows.

The event clearly lifted the spirits of those in attendance, with a spirit of thankfulness that the community came through the storm and banded together to help one another in a time of need. Most of those in attendance then ate lunch at the shelter.

Distribution Center

As the resumption of electrical service nears, the community is now turning its attention to other tasks. Food, water and household items are being received from numerous sources, including the Teamsters Union, Church of Christ and a Minnesota truck driver who has organized a relief effort in his hometown and is bringing the items here later in the week (see related story in this issue). Mayor Kemp asked the local ministers to organize the distribution effort at the community center and details are available there.

Right around the corner will be the massive brush clean-up faced by the city. Mayor Kemp and city superintendent Todd Watson attended a FEMA briefing Monday in Piggott to begin planning that process. Information on how that will be accomplished will be forthcoming. At this time, city residents are asked to take brush to the right-of-way along the streets for pickup. "Please take the brush as close to the street as possible without actually being in the street itself," Watson said. Residents are reminded, as has been the case with other storms, not to place large tree items in the piles -- brush only, size that can be picked up by a backhoe.

ADEM also encouraged victims to document any repairs to their homes as the recovery continues.

Individuals who have suffered losses are encouraged to contact their insurance companies as soon as possible. They should also document damage by taking photos or videos, and keeping lists of items damaged or destroyed, then commence clean-up. Residents are also encouraged to dispose of damaged property that presents a health hazard, or may hamper clean-up operations.

Richard Griffin, with the FEMA public affairs office, explained the process -- "we're still in the preliminary assessment stage and we'll present that information to the governor. It will then be up to him to decide what services to request, but primarily we'll be helping with debris removal and local emergency services."

In response to one of the many rumors of the past week Gifford noted, "FEMA does not reimburse individuals for generators. We'll primarily be working with the cities and the counties to provide debris removal and emergency services...any individual benefits would not be available until much later, if at all."

Gifford encouraged all area residents to work with their local and county officials for needs. He also encouraged everyone to be patient, as the process may take some time to complete.

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  • The pictures we keep seeing are just unbelievable and know we haven't seen the half. Our hearts and prayers go out daily to all my hometown. We also keep hearing stories of great compassion and self sacrifice but that is just the way Rector, Clay County, and Northeast Arkansas is. Glad I grew up there and makes me a better person because of it. God bless each and everyone as you recover and see good days again.

    Rob Simpson

    Ten Mile, Tn.

    -- Posted by robsimpson on Fri, Feb 6, 2009, at 12:08 PM
  • I am so proud of all the residents of Rector. I am very proud to say Rector is my hometown.

    -- Posted by Mary Long on Fri, Feb 6, 2009, at 9:25 PM
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