Looking back at 2007 ice storm in Tulsa
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 09, 2012
12/09/12 at 7:40 AM
View slideshows and read archived stories from the 2007 ice storm.
Running out of food after just a couple of days, a Red Cross shelter asked for some urgent supplies, and the central command post quickly dispatched a carload.
But on the frozen city streets after the worst ice storm in Tulsa history, it took three hours to reach the shelter and another three hours to get back - a six-hour round trip that made Brian Jensen realize the full scope of the crisis.
"This was a massive, massive operation on a scale that Tulsa hadn't seen before," said Jensen, the senior director of emergency services for the Eastern Oklahoma Red Cross. "And we couldn't deliver supplies fast enough."
The freezing rain started late Dec. 8, 2007. But the full brunt didn't hit until the early hours of Dec. 9, five years ago Sunday.
Crashing tree limbs and exploding transformers kept most Tulsans awake. And by dawn, the city was under a layer of ice that measured 3 inches thick in some places.
Twenty-nine deaths were linked to the storm, including half a dozen Tulsa-area residents who died in house fires. Scores of people running generators were treated for carbon monoxide sickness. Nursing homes and hospitals lost power and depended on generators to continue operating.
Damage to private homes was estimated at $780 million, and a swath of northeastern Oklahoma was declared a federal disaster zone.
More than half a million people lost power statewide, including nearly 80 percent of Tulsa's population. Then-Mayor Kathy Taylor devised an innovative program - Operation Power Up - to use volunteer electricians and others to make minor home repairs and restore power for those in need of help.
The Red Cross opened 35 shelters across the metropolitan area, not counting at least 19 other shelters staffed by other relief agencies.
"Ice storms are some of the hardest disasters to deal with," Jensen said. "It's not just one part of town affected, it's the whole town - virtually everybody hit at once."
The ice storm's prolonged aftermath changed how the Red Cross plans to react next time, he said.
Shelters will stockpile more food, in case they can't be resupplied. And officials will choose the location of each shelter more carefully.
"They need to be on major roads," Jensen said, "so people can find them, even in the dark.
"And if one shelter loses power and we have to evacuate everybody to another shelter, the buses need quick, easy access."
'A few hours' doomed power system
The forecast for that night included "a bit of ice," not a major event. But that was enough to put AEP-PSO on alert.
Steve Baker, PSO's vice president of distribution operations, watched from his office window as the storm moved in, triggering eerie green flashes across the horizon as the electrical grid imploded.
"A city darkened by an ice storm is the worst nightmare for any electric utility employee," Baker said.
"I had to keep looking at the darkness across the city to convince myself it was really happening. I remember thinking it had taken several generations to construct the electrical system and only a few hours to tear it down."
Expo Square became a base of emergency operations, where more than 5,500 utility crews converged from all across the country.
But even with all that help, some customers didn't get their lights back on until Christmas Eve.
At the time, PSO was halfway through its first major tree-trimming cycle, meant to reduce the impact of storms.
Now the company is halfway through its second cycle of tree trimming.
Baker said the utility has invested "tens of millions each year since the 2007 storm to strengthen our electrical system."
"Without a doubt, PSO is better prepared for the next 'storm of the century,' although we hope the next major event is many years away."
PSO spokesman Stan White- ford said the utility spent about $92.8 million responding to the ice storm. Those efforts included fixing power lines, meters and boxes, as well as removing downed trees.
Crews from around the country put in about 1.4 million man hours helping restore electricity.
Customers may not notice it, but PSO placed a "storm rider" on their monthly bills, adding $1.50 to the average bill to recover storm-response costs. The extra fee, approved by the Corporation Commission, went into effect in August 2008 and expires in August 2013.
Whiteford said PSO expects the fee to have raised about $65 million by the time it expires. The utility expects to recoup the rest of its costs through the sale of sulfur dioxide credits and rate revenues over time, he said.
Whiteford said the tree-trimming effort, which PSO calls its "Reliability Enhancement Plan," helped minimize storm damage.
PSO began the program in 2005, two years before the ice storm. Whiteford said that in the seven years since the program started, the number of outages dropped by more than one-third, and the duration of those outages declined by about half.
The utility's tree-trimming program has drawn criticism from Tulsans concerned it is too aggressive. Others say the program is necessary to limit outages.
Though new housing developments routinely bury distribution lines, a 2008 Oklahoma Corporation Commission staff report found that burying all power lines would be cost prohibitive: about $57.5 billion statewide.
Burying lines "has not been a huge portion" of PSO's defensive measures to prepare for the next major ice storm, Whiteford said.
It took months for the city to dispose of the broken limbs and fallen trees, with millions of cubic yards of debris piled up to the rooftops in some neighborhoods. Another post-storm program that won wide praise was ReGreen Tulsa, which raised private funds to plant new trees citywide.
The program, which far exceeded its goal of 20,000 trees, was a collaboration involving the city, Up With Trees and the Tulsa Community Foundation.
Still, tree damage remains a common sight five years later, especially to the trained eye of Michael Perkins, the city's urban forester.
"It's real obvious," he said, "especially in the less affluent areas, where people haven't had the money to clean it up."
Two years of drought took a heavier toll on trees weakened by the ice damage, he said. But it's still not too late to help trees recover.
"Have a professional come in," Perkins said, "even if you have to do it a little at a time, as you can afford it."
Power outage taught survival
Aside from tree damage and other lingering effects, the ice storm brings bittersweet memories for those who went days and weeks without power. Some got to know neighbors they'd never met while others spent hours of uninterrupted time talking with family members, without the usual electronic distractions.
Beverly Wood said she drew from her childhood in a rural community to adapt to 12 days without power during the storm.
"I grew up in a rural community, and you learned how to survive," said Wood, now 77. "A lot of young people don't understand these things, and they get impatient."
For 12 days, Wood, her husband, Frank, and their four dogs lived in their Tulsa home without electricity, making do with a gas stove and gas-heated water in their house. An intermittent propane heater and an extra pair of socks constituted the extent of her ice storm luxuries, she said.
Wood said the ice storm had some positive side effects. She and her husband spent more time than usual talking.
"We didn't get on each other's nerves. We would go out and visit with neighbors. We got to know neighbors a lot better than we had in years."
The ice storm even gave her a hobby she has kept five years later: feeding birds.
"Looking back on it, it wasn't that traumatic," Wood said. "In fact, I enjoyed looking out at all the snow."
Ice Storm by the Numbers
600,000 homes and businesses without power statewide.
3 out of 4 Tulsa residents without electricity.
1,800 emergency calls answered by the Tulsa Fire Department in the first 24 hours after the storm, 10 times the normal number of calls in a day.
168 emergency calls answered by EMSA in a two-hour period at the storm's height.
5,737 people who stayed at Red Cross shelters.
30,621 meals served by Red Cross volunteers.
189 miles of distribution lines repaired by PSO.
1,400 utility poles replaced.
Source: Tulsa World archives
World Staff Writers Jarrel Wade and Rod Walton contributed to this story.
Original Print Headline: '07 ice storm hit Tulsa hard
Michael Overall 918-581-8383
A utility crew works on broken power lines on 36th Street North between Harvard and Yale avenues on Dec. 11, 2007. Tulsa World file
The 2007 ice storm covered most of Tulsa in a thick sheet of ice. Pictured here is the view looking south from downtown toward the Arkansas River, on Dec. 10, 2007. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World File
Broken tree limbs frame downtown Tulsa on Dec. 11, 2007. The ice storm damaged thousands of trees across the city. Tulsa World File
Alonzo Rodriguez throws a log off the roof of a house near 41st Street and New Haven Avenue on Dec. 11, 2007. The ice storm caused $780 million in damage to homes. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World File