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Watauga recovers from 'Crystal Christmas'

Article Published: Dec. 30, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Watauga recovers from 'Crystal Christmas'

Workers from UnionPower, a sister cooperative of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, work on downed power lines off of Jake's Mountain Road in Watauga County on Monday afternoon. According to Blue Ridge Electric, 50 percent of the area's power lines were affected by the ice storm.

Photo by Mark Mitchell

Multiple agencies worked through the holiday and over the weekend assisting families, clearing roads and restoring power in the aftermath of an ice storm.

The massive ice storm brought down trees and power lines, and created hazardous road conditions. Watauga County was declared in a state of emergency by its board of commissioners.

As of Monday morning, all primary roads have been cleared with the exception of some tree debris on N.C. 105, according to Kevin Whittington, N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) maintenance engineer for Watauga.

NCDOT crews from Yadkin and Surry counties assisted over the weekend, and Caldwell County crews were in Watauga Monday. Several local contractors and the N.C. Forestry Service were also working to clear trees from roadways.

Whittington said the primary goal was to clear trees from the roads to allow access. He said NCDOT worked with Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation to open roads for power restoration efforts.

"We pushed debris to the side of the road," Whittington said. "That material will be assessed in the coming days after all roads are cleared."

An estimated 19,000 members were without power in Watauga at the peak of the outage on Sunday morning. As of Tuesday, crews had restored power to all but 2,300. Approximately half of BREMCO's 7,000 miles of electric lines were affected.

Renee Whitener, public relations director for Blue Ridge Electric, released a statement Monday, saying restoration efforts have been extensive due to the number of fallen trees tearing down the electric system and, in some instances, becoming entangled with power lines and breaking poles.

At least 150 broken poles have been located and are being replaced, many by hand on mountainsides and other remote locations. Reaching and repairing lines and poles in mountainous terrain in the remaining snow and icy conditions takes longer than repairing parts of the system more easily accessible.

In addition to bringing in extra crews, the cooperative is working to accelerate restoration efforts by bringing in bulldozers to move debris and further access system damage by patrolling remote power lines by helicopter.

"A large number of crews from 11 other utilities responded to our request for help and more than 300 linemen are working on power restoration," Whitener said. "We want to thank everyone who has had a part in feeding and housing all our line technicians so that they can continue to work in these tough conditions. Many of them have been here since Christmas morning, working long hours to get the rest of the power restored as quickly as possible."

Linemen are assisting from electric cooperatives Rutherford, Randolph, Piedmont, EnergyUnited, UnionPower, Pee Dee, Lumbee River, Central EMC and Blue Ridge Energies, as well as crews from Pike Corporation, Carter Utility Services and Asplundh Tree Expert Company.

BREMCO reminds residents that downed lines can still be energized and should be avoided. To report down lines call BREMCO at (800) 451-5474.

As of Tuesday, 117 homes are without power in Ashe County and BREMCO hopes to restore those by the end of the day.

Members are asked to call the Powerline at (800) 448-2383 if they don't have power because as these final problem areas are repaired, there may be single residence outages that would be difficult to detect.

The outages left many in Watauga without heat. The Watauga County chapter of the American Red Cross opened three emergency shelters. The Valle Crucis Conference Center, Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department and Stewart Simmons Volunteer Department were open throughout the weekend.

Local Red Cross director Sonny Sweet said approximately 20 people stayed in the Valle Crucis and Deep Gap shelters. The Stewart Simmons shelter prepared food and allowed people access to showers.

A shelter was also established at Newland Fire Department in Avery County, which was utilized by 32 people during the peak of the storm.

The Valle Crucis shelter will remain open until power is fully restored, Sweet said.
Sweet said, to his knowledge, that no one was seriously injured as a result of a storm.
The Watauga Red Cross can be reached by calling (828) 264-8226.

Samaritan's Purse disaster relief teams are also being deployed in the county. Samaritan's Purse disaster teams specialize in cutting trees, clearing debris, and making emergency repairs on storm-damaged houses. There is no charge for these services. Crews will focus on the homes of the elderly, sick, single mothers, and others who are unable to cope with the storm damage.
To volunteer with Samaritan's Purse or to request help, call (828) 278-1981.

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