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December disaster wreaks havoc on landscape, property, revenues
Most critically, 29 Oklahomans died from the impact of the ice storm, including 16 in motor vehicle accidents, according to the state Medical Examiner's office.
The chilling disaster stung government and business revenues. Also gone or severely damaged are thousands of trees throughout the metro area, Tulsa and surrounding communities.
Lingering blackout widespread
More than 640,000 homes, schools and businesses throughout the state lost electrical power. Outages closed schools for several days in the metro area, greater Tulsa and other communities.
Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., which covers the metro area and approximately the central third of the state, experienced a record 300,000 outages. Some 8,000 workers from OG&E, Public Service Company and Oklahoma Electric Cooperatives were sent to repair damaged distribution lines. They were assisted by thousands of service workers from utilities in six other states.
Oklahoma Energy Secretary David Fleischaker said statewide, about 250,000 electric customers were back online in two days. It took up to 10 days for others to regain power.
For the first time anywhere in the country, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided assistance to Oklahoma homes and businesses for meter base repairs. The work kept many electrical contractors busy throughout the metro area. Hayes Electric Co. of Bethany made 112 calls to repair home wiring systems before power could be restored, an employee said.
Air traffic at Will Rogers World Airport slowed dramatically during the storm. "At one point, there were no flights arriving and departing," said airport spokeswoman Jennifer McCollum. Departures from Will Rogers declined 75 to 80 percent during two days of freezing rain and a backlog of passengers accumulated in the terminal, McCollum said.
The storm cost the state's trucking industry "millions," said Dan Case, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Trucking Association.
"Computers to dispatch trucks were down," he said. "So many businesses were out of power, there was no way for truck lines to deliver."
Many of Oklahoma's more than 50,000 long-haul and local delivery drivers were sidelined as freight stacked up in terminals, Case said.
Scores of gas stations throughout the metro area were shut down when power outage starved gas pumps of electricity to run them. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission sought help from the Oklahoma Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association to locate gas stations still operating so emergency workers could refuel.
Business winners and losers
Metro area hardware stores and big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's related sales of hundreds of generators, chain saws, kerosene and propane heaters, cook stoves and lanterns to home owners and businesses hit by the storm.
Many hotels and motels experienced a surge of business as victims of the blackout sought warmth and food. Jeff Fine, general manager at Days Inn in Norman, said the hotel received "quite a few calls" on Dec. 10 from people who said no hotel rooms were available throughout Oklahoma City.
Food stores, vital to survival, were not exempt from the power crisis. Some throughout the area lost revenue and perishable food. Three of six Crest Discount Food stores were powerless for several days. Crest owner Bruce Harroz said two of the stores were forced to close. He estimated the loss at up to $500,000.
It was a mixed menu for food delivery service. Gary Colvin, owner of Dining Express Delivery of Metro Oklahoma City, said his corporate business was 50 percent off during the ice storm and power failure. His home deliveries also plummeted, he said.
But Pizza Hut kept busy nearly 'round the clock, said operations manager Kelly Bachrodt. "Six of our 24 stores in the metro went black and the phone system failed in three others," he said. "We transferred incoming calls to managers' cell phones."
Jim Cowan, executive director of the Bricktown Association, said the ice storm severely hurt the district's restaurants and bars that had scheduled holiday parties. "But we kept power the whole time, and this didn't happen on a weekend," he said. "It wasn't as crippling as the January '07 ice storm."
The storm's impact also darkened already dreary retail prospects for the holiday shopping season. December sales taxes for the city of Oklahoma City were in line with lower national sales forecasts for the holidays.
State, cities cope with costs
In a Jan. 2 report to the Oklahoma City Council, City Manager Jim Couch stated the city's $27.6 million in December sales taxes reflected a 2.09 percent increase above December 2006 collections, and that overall retail sales taxes increased about 3.11 percent. But the report indicates holiday sales of general merchandise and apparel showed much smaller growth.
And in late December, state Treasurer Scott Meacham said lower income tax rates and sales tax collections hurt by the storm make it unlikely the state will fulfill revenue projections for the year. In that event, the present income tax rate of 5.5 percent cannot be lowered further, as specified in a bill enacted during the last legislative session.
Oklahoma City Public Works Director Dennis Clowers estimates it will cost $7.5 million or more to clear storm debris from streets and public areas. Preliminary estimates indicate Norman's cost for removing debris could be more than $8.5 million. FEMA put Midwest City's cleanup cost at $12 million. Other city damage assessments were still out as of press time.
Cities will receive federal funds for 75 percent of the cost of debris removal and infrastructure repairs, as certified by FEMA. Another 12.5 percent of the cost will be paid by the state.
OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said the company's unofficial tally for electrical repairs is "approximately $40 million." OG&E, an investor-owned utility, is not eligible to receive FEMA aid for its losses. Instead, it will call on rate payers to reimburse the company. Soon, OG&E will be seeking a "recovery mechanism" from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Alford said.
Many mature trees in Downtown Oklahoma City's Myriad Botanical Gardens snapped or bent to the ground beneath their burden of ice. Garden manager Allan Storjohann said most of the 500 or more trees at the gardens sustained damage.
Close to 1,000 trees studding the University of Oklahoma's Norman campus were damaged or destroyed. Officials say the lost trees will be replaced.
Virtually every park, public area and golf course in the metro area suffered injury to its tree canopy. "Several hundred trees were uprooted or had their tops taken off," said Bobby Florer, assistant golf pro at Westwood Park Golf Course in Norman.
"I'd say 75 to 80 percent of our trees were damaged," said Larry Denney, director of golf at John Conrad Regional Golf Course in Midwest City. "We'll have to remove at least 20 or 25."
Arborists and other horticultural experts are warning property owners that much more damage will arise if the injured trees are improperly trimmed. "Topping" a tree, or cutting back its limbs to stubs or lateral branches, is particularly harmful, they say, because it weakens a tree's structure and makes it more susceptible to disease.