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VOL. 10 | NO. 24 | Saturday, June 10, 2017

After the ‘Tom Lee Storm’: A Look At Recovery Efforts, What's Next

By Bill Dries

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Eleven days after the May 27 storm that knocked out power to 188,000 homes and businesses, Memphis Light, Gas and Water officials declared victory in the recovery with a Wednesday, June 8, late afternoon Tweet: “Update: Restored.”

At about the same time in Collierville, Dale Lane, head of the Shelby County Office of Preparedness, opened a speech to a Republican group with a cautionary, “I hope you all have your power back” before diving into a pitch for his bid to become Shelby County Sheriff in the 2018 county elections.

The utility is calling it the “Tom Lee Storm,” a reference to the Tom Lee obelisk in the Downtown park that was toppled during the storm as well as during “Hurricane Elvis” in 2003. Both storms were marked by sudden, intense straight-line winds that did their damage over a short period of time. But Alonzo Weaver, who coordinated MLGW’s response, said the 2003 storm caused more damage and across a wider area of the city and county.

“It was a fairly long-lived complex of thunderstorms,” Gary Woodall, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service Memphis, said of the storms coming from northeast Arkansas. “It was severe pretty much all the way along its path.

“As it got into the Shelby County area though, the storm moving from the northwest actually got a little boost from the out flow strong winds that were coming from thunderstorms to our northeast,” Woodall said. “Those kind of came together over Shelby County.”

They specifically came together over North Watkins Road and Highway 51 where stands of trees by the Memphis Police and Fire training academies were flattened and the two buildings were heavily damaged.

“We’ve been here before,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “The ice storm of 1994 and Hurricane Elvis in 2003 and floods most recently in 2011. In those times, we all pulled together to help each other and got through these tough times. Memphis pulls together.”

On its fifth day without electricity, Union Grove Baptist Church on Frayser Boulevard, Frayser’s main thoroughfare, was bustling Thursday, June 1, with a grill outside the church and bags of ice being handed out to residents making a daily journey there last week from their homes behind the church and on the other side of the boulevard.

“We still don’t have lights in our church,” Pastor Charlie Caswell said five days in. “But we are feeding every day and providing ice water, a place for them to hang out. Those things allow these families to be sustained because we still don’t know when the lights are going to be on for these families.”

In its response to the storm, MLGW used more than 100 line crews from outside the utility and 78 tree-trimming crews.

“We had a lot of places where there was very, very heavy damage,” Weaver said. “That’s why these efforts take a lot of people and time. We stuck with our restoration plan, which is to get the backbone circuits up.”

Utility executives told Memphis City Council members at a Tuesday, June 6, briefing that putting all utilities underground is a $3.6 billion proposition that likely would take 50 years and result in rate increases.

“Underground is not cost-effective,” Weaver said.

He pointed to the $93 million cost to the utility to respond to eight major storms since the 1994 ice storm, including the one Memorial Day weekend that brought micro-wind bursts of 105 miles an hour.

MLGW plans to upgrade circuits to hospitals, pumping stations and other critical public facilities for more redundancy. It also plans to increase its use of reclosers and sectionalizers, technology that allows automatic resets of downed circuits. Currently, circuits must be reset by utility crews, which have to physically get to them through downed tree limbs and trees.

Distribution automation switches can also be operated remotely or automatically, reducing the duration of outages and the number of customers affected.

The utility already has some “mini-derricks” used in backyards where it is difficult to maneuver a utility truck with a crane to restore power.

MLGW estimates it has spent $20 million over the past 15 years to harden the overhead system.

“It’s a blessing that we didn’t have any fatalities,” council member Martavius Jones said at the end of Tuesday’s committee session briefing. “Mother nature is unpredictable.”

Strickland sought and the Memphis City Council approved up to $6 million from the city’s reserve fund for cleanup from the May 27 storm.

“Reserves are sometimes called rainy day funds,” Strickland said. “It’s a windy day fund.”

Half of the amount is to fund city Public Works picking up the storm debris by the curb with the other $3 million for those citizens who can’t get their debris to the curb “to help citizens clear debris from their property and move it to the street so it can be hauled off,” Strickland said.

“The first $3 million that we have, if the state qualifies for reimbursement, we will get 80 percent of that back,” Strickland said. The second $3 million from the reserves is not reimbursable even if there is a federal disaster declaration.

Whatever the city gets in the way of federal disaster funding won’t reimburse the city for all of the money it is using from city coffers upfront. That is the way disaster response works.

“As I understand it, the city still hasn’t been reimbursed for storms that happened years ago,” he said. “I’m most interested in how do we help people – individual property owners.”

One of the more striking sites Rodney Wakefield saw during the recovery was a “for sale” sign in a yard where a large tree had fallen after being uprooted from the ground near the sign.

“I saw this man that had a for sale sign in his yard and a tree came down on his house,” said Wakefield, a Memphis Public Works supervisor who has been helping move some trees as well as supervising employees in the effort. “He’s trying to sell his house and you can’t even see it.”

PROPERTY SALES 62 288 2,619
MORTGAGES 52 197 1,783