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Remembering the storm

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Five years later, local officials look back on the 2009 ice storm

By Stephen Lega

The 2009 ice storm arrived in Marion County on Monday evening, Jan. 28.
"Roads were beginning to ice over. Limbs were starting to sway to the point of breaking," Marion County Judge/Executive John Mattingly said.
The storm continued to inflict damage throughout the night and the next day. By nightfall on Jan. 29, the county was hitting rock bottom, according to Mattingly.
"It was obvious that we were without water pumping capacity, and the lights were out in probably 60 to 70 percent of the county," he said.
Mattingly remembers the fiscal court held an emergency meeting to put together a plan to contact anyone who might have equipment that could aid in clearing roads.
"It probably took two full days after that to get the roads open," Mattingly said. "Not clean, not clear, but passable."
Marion County Roads Supervisor Tommy Lee said that storm was the most widespread damage he can remember in the 15 years he’s worked for the county.
"It was the first time we ever had to cancel garbage for a week because our trucks wouldn't fit down the roads because of the limbs," Lee said. "We worked from daylight to dark until we got all the roads opened up."
He said the first day they went out they would clear a road and then more limbs would fall behind them. The county purchased extra chain saws, and he remembers magistrates, emergency personnel, fire departments and the public all chipping in to get roads re-opened.
Lee added that it took until April before his department was finished with debris.
"By the time we got the county cleaned up, everybody was hoping it never happens again," he said. "They done really well. They held up really well."
Considering the circumstances, Lee said he was glad that nobody got hurt with the exception of one mashed finger.
"It's hard to believe it's been five years," Lee said.

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WATER
When the power went out, that only hinted at the potential for a bigger problem.
John "Quincy" Thomas, superintendent of the Lebanon Water Company, said he remembers that they started receiving reports a couple days before the ice storm that catastrophic weather could be coming.
"We told the guys at the treatment plant to get the tanks at full levels at all times," Thomas said. "We didn't know for sure when the ice was going to hit. We didn't know for sure if we would be off at all."
Even so, he said he wasn’t too concerned. Before the ice storm, the power had never been out more than five or six hours at the treatment plant, and Kentucky Utilities always made the plant a priority whenever the power went down.
“We had plenty of water in the tanks to sustain that amount of outage," Thomas said.
When the electricity did go out, the Lebanon Water Company’s tanks had about a two-day supply.
During the ice storm, power crews had multiple issues to deal with. First, they were spread thin since the ice storm affected 93 counties across Kentucky. Second, the line that provided power to the treatment plant is on a knob and could not be reached with their vehicles.
"They had to carry a lot of equipment manually and climb poles the old-fashioned way," Thomas said.
He woke up at 3 a.m. the day he thought the water would run out.
“I can remember getting up in the middle of the night and turning on my faucet, and nothing came out," Thomas said. "I thought, all of Marion County's out."
That turned out to not be the case since the Marion County Water District had also built up its storage prior to the storm. While the water pressure went down, many parts of the county did have water throughout the outage.
When Thomas drove into town around 5 a.m., West Main Street in Lebanon was completely dark, he said.
"Marion County is out of electricity. We're basically out of water. Trees, lines down everywhere. And I'm sitting there thinking this has got to be a bad dream," he said. "But, as usual, the people of Marion County pulled together."

SHELTER
During the worst parts of the storm, Marion County EMS staff stayed at the station for days at a time. A call-center was also established at the building for residents to call for information.
EMS Director Robbie Turner said his department was busier in the aftermath of that storm than it had been since the winter of 1994-95.
"During that time we did more transporting to the actual shelters that were open than we did anything," Turner said.
Shelters were set up in Loretto and Lebanon, and Turner said some of the EMS personnel served as a de facto medical staff at the shelter in Loretto during that time.
In many places, roads were impassable, and two ambulances were involved in accidents during that time. One ran into a power line, while another slid off the road and received minor damage, according to Turner.
The biggest issue he had was making sure the EMTs and paramedics had something to eat and drink. As the days of constant running continued, he said it did affect the staff physically and mentally, but they fought through it.
"That's what this job is. You just kind of have to adapt and move on," Turner said.
In Lebanon, city employees opened and operated a shelter at Centre Square for several days. At one point, the power went out at the shelter, and the National Guard was called to bring a generator.
While the power was restored before they arrived, the guard members remained at the shelter just in case something else happened.

PREPARATION
Hayden Johnson was not working for the county at the time of the storm, and he was one of the lucky people who only lost power for a few hours. After a few days, he said he got nosy and went to the EMS building to find out if there was a way he could help.
He contacted the Southern Baptists to get a disaster relief team to come and help clean up fallen limbs and to cut down limbs that could potentially injure someone if they fell.
Later that year, Johnson became the assistant emergency management director, and the next year he took over the director’s seat.
Looking back, he said the city employees who operated the shelter did an excellent job, especially considering they hadn’t been trained to do so.
If the ice storm happened again today, however, Johnson and Judge Mattingly both agreed that the county would be better prepared to deal with it.
One reason they feel that way is the re-establishment of an active group of Red Cross volunteers in Marion County. Today, Marion County residents have been trained to step in if something happened. This includes having a trailer stocked with supplies to set up a shelter, and personnel who know how to run it.
Before the ice storm, Mattingly said the county had not completed a "full-blown, Red Cross shelter assessment" on any buildings in the county. Today, the county has identified potential shelter sites in each part of the county, and all those buildings have been equipped to run on generators if necessary.
"We're much better off than we were prior to the ice storm," Mattingly said.
He added that the county has learned that it's not possible to be too prepared for a potential natural disaster.
"It's a continual process to try to improve your capabilities," he said.
The Lebanon Water Company took a big step of its own last year when it purchased a $444,000 generator with an 850-gallon tank that runs on diesel fuel. Running at half-power, the generator could run for 45 hours before it ran out of fuel.
"If the electricity goes off, it's just a matter of about five minutes that we can transfer power off KU to the emergency generator," Thomas said.
The water company purchased the generator because of the ice storm and the flooding that affected Calvary (where the treatment plant is located) and Bradfordsville in 2010. That flood also affected the location of the generator, which sits two feet higher than the Rolling Fork River has ever been recorded, Thomas said.
While he hopes he never has to use it, Thomas said knowing they had the generator available was a big relief when bitter cold temperatures swept through Marion County in recent months.
"We might be out of electricity, but hopefully the county won't be out of water also," he said.
During the storm, Marion County Public Schools let county officials use its One Call Now service to contact as many people as they could with information. Since then, the City of Lebanon and Marion County have gone together to pay for a similar service, Code Red, which they can use to alert county residents if bad weather is coming or other problems arise.
Mattingly also said he thinks people have a better idea of what to expect if another storm does roll through Marion County. State and federal assistance is available, but not in the immediate aftermath of a storm, he said.
"It became apparent in most cases for the first two or three days, you got to fend for yourself," Mattingly said.
Johnson added that people should remember to keep an emergency kit on hand with enough supplies, including food, water and medicine, for every person in the household for at least 72 hours.
"A weather radio is the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “Everybody should have one.”
For information on how to put together an emergency kit, go to either redcross.org or ready.gov.
He also suggested having a contact person in another state. That way if people get separated, everyone can call the same person to report where they are at and how they are doing.

WHAT WE LEARNED
Judge Mattingly said he heard many stories during the storm of businesses that had power doing what they could to accommodate customers and of citizens helping one another.
"It was apparent that Marion County was a very compassionate, caring, helping community,” he said.
From an administrative standpoint, Mattingly added that Marion County received the final documents closing out its reports for reimbursements from the ice storm in December.
"Federal declarations take a long time to unwind,” he said.
If any good can come out of something like the ice storm, it’s that the community will know how to respond if it happens again, according to EMS Director Turner. Of course, he would prefer to not have a repeat performance.
“I'm hoping that was one of those once in a lifetime events,” he said.
One thing that was important throughout the storm and the weeks that followed was the cooperation between the various emergency services in Marion County.
"I've worked in a lot of counties. I've been doing this many years ... We have quite possibly the best emergency service people and departments in the state as far as cooperation and working together," Turner said. "Nobody gets their toes stepped on."
Johnson agreed the emergency services in Marion County have always worked tremendously together.
"We're fortunate that everybody gets along," he said.
If you ask Lee, that sense of cooperation extends to the citizens of the county as well.
"I thought it before and I still think that Marion County sticks together when it gets tough. I think they pull together and get the job done," Lee said. "They always have."