Approaching Storm Could Hamper Power Restoration Process

Friday, December 14th 2007, 8:21 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Joyce Williams was determined to stay at her house after an ice storm left her and thousands of other Oklahomans without power, turning to candles for light and gas stove burners for heat. But after a day or so of roughing it, Williams, who already is disabled, began getting sick.

"I was looking at the news and realized I was probably dealing with carbon monoxide poisoning. Thankfully, I went ahead and took my brother up on his offer to come over to his house."

Williams' home in rural Luther remained without power late Thursday, but utility crews had managed to knock down the number of power outages statewide from 600,000 at the storm's height to just over 328,500 early Friday.

Crews working 13-hour shifts in some cases got a break on Thursday as the massive system that hit the nation's midsection finally moved to the east. But another storm, this time threatening snow instead of ice, was forecast to begin affecting the state Friday morning and could set back crews a few days.

On Thursday, Gov. Brad Henry walked through the historic Terrace Drive neighborhood in Tulsa, where front lawns were cluttered with cracked tree limbs.

"Help is definitely on the way," Henry told residents.

The number of Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. customers, mostly in the Oklahoma City area, without power had plunged from more than 300,000 on Tuesday to 156,005 by Friday morning.

Public Service Company of Oklahoma also had 148,310 outages, mostly in the Tulsa area, and Sid Sperry with the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives said about 19,000 rural customers remained without power.

While power disruptions were declining, the number of deaths blamed on the storm rose to 23.

The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office said 13 of the deaths were from motor vehicle crashes; eight died in house fires, including one in Broken Arrow early Thursday and one in Tulsa Wednesday night, and two succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

State officials were preparing an ice storm damage assessment Thursday to submit for a disaster declaration from President Bush as early as Friday.

Bush declared a state of emergency for the entire state Monday, freeing up federal assistance, including generators, water, cots and food.

Henry estimated that damage from the storm could exceed $200 million, although others held off making a guess until their assessments were complete.

State Farm had taken nearly 6,000 claims by late Thursday, spokesman John Wiscaver said, and expected to eventually reach 10,000 claims from this storm. Farmers Insurance, the state's second-largest insurer behind State Farm, had received more than 5,500 claims, spokeswoman Michelle Levy said.

Steve Kennedy, a California-based claims supervisor for Farmers Insurance, said the storm damage is nothing new, but "the sheer numbers involved in this one makes it more visible."

"I think we've got 5,500 claims so far. That's a big event, and the claim count is still moving."

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said the storm could have an impact on Oklahoma's economy.

"When it first started happening, I thought it would be a 2- or 3-day ice event and any impact would be minimal," Meacham said Thursday. "But with a power outage lasting this long and the widespread damage we're seeing to homes and businesses, it will have a definite impact."

He noted that the storm's main track roughly paralleled Interstate 44.

"That's where the bulk of our population is, and as a result, the bulk of our economic activity," Meacham said.

The storm also has stressed shelters, as some residents were on their fourth or fifth day without electricity.

Williams, who suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, a disorder characterized by chronic, severe nerve pain, was glad she didn't turn to a shelter, even though the cold weather and stress made her condition worse.

"I was sitting in my house listening to all the trees around me break," she said. "I'm just thankful that I don't have to go to the Cox Center and be among strangers."

But Kim Harrel did seek refuge at an American Red Cross shelter in downtown Tulsa, where she had been since Monday.

"It's a very humbling thing in life," Harrel said, watching her kids play a game of Twister in the gymnasium on Thursday.

"I used to be the person on the opposite side of the serving line."