Memphis council grills MLGW over outages

By: - February 16, 2022 12:24 pm
Two men remove a tree downed during a Feb. 3 ice storm in Shelby County. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Two men remove a tree downed during a Feb. 3 ice storm in Shelby County. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

On Monday, Memphis’ electricity provider, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, finished restoring power for the last of the 233,460 customers who lost power after ice storms knocked it out for almost two week. 

On Tuesday, a Memphis City Council committee met with MLGW officials to discuss the city’s power outage problems, noting that Memphis has experienced several outages due to severe storms in recent history. 

MLGW officials say they are waiting on Gov. Bill Lee to declare the storms a disaster, which will allow them to receive 75% in reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Currently, the estimated cost of repairs is $14 million, based on similar damage costs from Hurricane Elvis in 2003. 

FEMA officials are in Memphis assessing the damage and could have a better estimate by Friday, said Rodney Cleek, manager of the budget, plant and rates department at MLGW.

Individual homeowners may also be reimbursed for the costs they accrued over the past two weeks, and MLGW officials noted that residents were left with few options for shelter while awaiting crews to restore electricity. While some residents were able to stay with family and friends, others were forced to check into hotels, and others had no option but to stay home. 

One of the things that we're looking at as a community is how are we going to harden our infrastructure to be able to handle more and more intense environmental events.

– Councilmember Jeff Warren

Residents without power had to throw away any perishable foods, a particular burden for low-income residents.

“Certainly when the declaration is declared, there will be funds available not only for MLGW and the local agencies but also for individuals as well,” said Cleek.  

In the meantime, city council members questioned MLGW officials why the process to restore electricity lasted nearly two weeks.

On Feb. 3, Memphis received snow and ice from a storm stretching from Texas to Maine. Memphis received up to 0.5 inches of ice accumulation, some of which caused branches and trees to break and crash into power lines.

Winter Storm Landon was the 4th largest natural disaster to hit Memphis in terms of peak customers affected, but Memphis has seen increasingly hard-hitting storms over the past 20 years, the worst being Hurricane Elvis in 2003 and the most recent being a derecho christened the “Tom Lee Storm” in 2017. 

“I was looking at your major storm dates and out of the 15 storms, 14 of those 15 have happened in this century, so I think one of the things that we’re looking at as a community is how are we going to harden our infrastructure to be able to handle more and more intense environmental events,” said Councilmember Jeff Warren, noting that tree-cleaning crews were targeted by thieves last summer, preventing them from clearing branches that could have mitigated this year’s storm.

MLGW officials said they were waiting on conditions to be safe for contract crews to be released to conduct repairs.. 

Customers were also slow to be informed of the problems due to infrastructure damage, which blocked MLGW’s text alerts. 

“We are committed to getting better. We are not at our best yet,” said MLGW President J.T. Young.

Young also partially blamed Shelby County’s infrastructure, noting that networks of underground power lines were more likely to be located in the eastern side of the county and overhead lines were more likely located within the center of Memphis, where many lower-income communities reside. While 40% of MLGW’s lines are underground, most were located outside of the city’s 2-40 loop.

“As people migrated east, our standards of what we built changed, so the majority of what we built is on the eastern side of Shelby County,” said Don Roberts, supervisor of reliability engineering at MLGW. 

“(There) is a much higher percentage of customers inside of Memphis,” he added. 

MLGW officials are now working on reevaluating their damage assessment strategy, including making prior preparations for storms to restore traffic signals at key intersections, optimizing crew efficiency and improving communications with customers. Officials plan on disabling text alerts due to severe damage until they make the appropriate fixes. 

MLGW officials also plan to review their storm restoration plan, conduct community engagement and activate a crisis team in advance of storms to alert all city officials of restoration efforts.  

Mayor Jim Strickland and MLGW officials also announced the creation of a citizens committee to find and recommend ways to improve Memphis’ infrastructure.

“I truly believe you did the best you could, but I guess you figured out that you need to prepare and get a lot better in the future,” said Councilmember Cheyenne Johnson. 

MLGW has suspended all disconnection fees for non-paying customers and has offered bill payment assistance while considering no-interest loans to assist eligible customers with electrical issues caused by the storm.

The utility also has also partnered with Mid-South Food Bank to host mobile food pantries.

Council members plan on meeting with MLGW officials in the next few weeks to discuss improved communications strategies.

 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

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