Power being restored

Published 4:22 pm Sunday, August 28, 2011

City surveying damage

Many Beaufort County residents had no electric power Sunday morning following Hurricane Irene’s exit from eastern North Carolina.

Hard and fast damage numbers for electric utilities weren’t available Sunday morning because crews were out assessing damage to utility systems.

But it was clear there had been considerable harm to utility polls and lines in Washington alone.

Crews with Washington Electric Utilities were out at 5 p.m. Saturday evening, taking a look at the damage as soon as the winds subsided enough for them to travel in safety.

Crews with bucket trucks were out early Sunday morning working on lines.

As of 9 p.m. Saturday, only 300 of Washington’s 14,000 electric-utility customers had power, said Keith Hardt, electric director.

As of 10:30 a.m. Sunday, 4,000 WEU customers didn’t have power, he said.

Most of these customers live in rural neighborhoods east of Washington and places west of Washington, including the Voice of America Road area.

All of the city’s main feeder lines in and around Washington were up and running as of Sunday morning.

All of WEU’s substations were in service except the one feeding Bath, Hardt said. A transmission line powering Bath failed during the storm.

The city’s water plant has been on generator power, and some of its wells have been on generator power, he related.

“Our goal today is to get those wells on permanent power and get the water plant on permanent power,” he said.

Any city power customer who has an outage issue may call WEU at 252-975-9320.

Anyone whose electric meter was pulled away from his or her home should call the city about having the meter replaced, Hardt advised.

Customers are asked to not call 911 unless they have to report an emergency.

Approximately 22,000 customers of Tideland Electric Membership Corp. were without power at the peak of the storm, said spokeswoman Heidi Smith.

That outage number hadn’t changed a great deal late Sunday morning.

“Our service areas were absolutely in this whole thing, one of the worst-hit in terms of flooding,” Smith said.

Tideland serves mostly rural spots, many of them in Beaufort County.

Tideland power crews reported for work at 5 a.m. Saturday, and they were on the roads by 6 a.m., she said.

Prior to the storm, Tideland arranged for a helicopter that was being used Sunday to conduct aerial damage surveys in the utility’s service area.

Tideland was laboring, along with its local telephone-service provider, re-establish phone service for the utility company.

Many customers have had difficulty calling the company, Smith said.

Full phone service to Tideland should be up and running by Monday at the latest, she reported.

Tideland’s corporate offices in Pantego had water around them after the Pungo Creek overflowed.

An unknown number of Washington’s power lines went down Saturday under the weight of limbs and trees felled by Irene’s winds.

“We had an exorbitant number of trees fall,” Hardt said.

Flooding also took out power in some locations.

Some residents reported their power had been restored by Saturday night.

A resident of Wilson Street, off Fifth Street, said her lights were on, and parts of downtown had power Saturday night, though other parts did not.

Homes on Slatestone Road, just outside the city, were without power Sunday morning. Reports from other communities were hard to get, given the scope of the outages and spotty phone service from dying cellphone and cordless-phone batteries.

Utility crews, out as soon as the worst of the storm passed Saturday, were still working at first light Sunday.

“I’ve been in the utility system almost 30 years,” Hardt said. “I’ve seen other big storms where I’ve gone and assisted, but I’ve never seen a storm in eastern North Carolina like this.”

WEU has five of its crews on duty and six contract crews in town, plus support crews, Hardt conveyed. This is the largest number of line-crew members the city has brought in during Hardt’s roughly 16-year history here.

John Rodman, the City of Washington’s planning director, and Wayne Harrell, the city’s chief building inspector, were among several city and county officials who spent Sunday conducting damage assessments.

“We’ll be looking for a lot of (electrical) services that may be pulled from sides of houses, like overhead service drops. We’ll be looking for any structural damage, trees that may have fallen into residences or buildings — that kind of thing — floodwaters, if they’ve got floodwaters inside the house,” Harrell said. “We’ll be talking to homeowners to make sure they understand the procedure is getting that cleaned out. … There are some commercial buildings — I noticed that Makin’ Tracks (on Fifth Street) has the canopy actually laying on the building — structural damage there. Those are the primary three things we’ll be looking for.”

Harrell, who has the power to condemn buildings and other structures, said condemnation would happen to protect the public.

“Anything that appears to a building inspector to be an imminent health hazard or imminent safety issue,” said Rodman in explaining what could lead to condemnation.

The assessments also help speed up the restoration of power, Rodman said.

“The city manager wants us to speed the process up by being proactive by making sure the service is OK so they can get it repaired and get the service back on, and they don’t have to wait for an inspection — that sort of thing,” Rodman said.

The assessment process also includes checking the city’s docks, Rodman noted.

“We’re going to check the docks to make sure they’re safe to bring the boats back up,” he said.

“We’re just trying to get ahead of it to make it as smooth a transition as possible,” Rodman said in explaining the need for post-storm assessments.

Asked about the overall condition of the city’s infrastructure, Allen Lewis, the city’s public-works director, said, “We’re still doing assessments and everything. It will probably be between noon and 4 o’clock (Sunday) afternoon before we get a real good grasp on that as far as our infrastructure. From a public-works standpoint, (the pump station at) Jack’s Creek is back up and running. We lost power out there early yesterday morning and couldn’t do anything else with it. Once we got the power back on, it (the water level) was down in very short order. It’s down below sea level on the creek side now.”

Lewis’ remarks came shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday.

“We’re closed tomorrow,” said Sarah Hodges, public-information officer with Beaufort County Schools.

That closure applies to students and 10-month employees of the school system, Hodges said. The school system’s 12-month employees should contact their supervisor to find out if their workplace has power, then report to work only if their workplace has power and they can do so safely, Hodges said.