On Monday, Memphis’ electric utility, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, finished restoring power to the last of the 233,460 customers who lost power after nearly two weeks of ice storms.
On Tuesday, a Memphis City Council committee met with MLGW officials to discuss the city’s problems with power outages, noting that Memphis has experienced multiple outages due to severe storms in recent history.
MLGW officials say they are waiting for Gov. Bill Lee to declare the storms a disaster, giving them 75% of reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Currently, the estimated repair cost is $14 million based on similar damage costs from Hurricane Elvis in 2003.
FEMA officials are in Memphis to assess the damage and may have a better estimate by Friday, said Rodney Cleek, manager of MLGW’s budget, facilities and tariffs division.
Individual homeowners can also recover expenses they incurred in the past two weeks, and MLGW officials noted residents were left with few options for shelter while they waited for crews to restore power. While some residents were able to stay with family and friends, others had to check into hotels, and still others had no choice but to stay at home.
One of the things we look at as a community is how we harden our infrastructure to withstand increasingly intense environmental events.
– Councilor Jeff Warren
Residents without electricity had to throw out all perishable food, a particular burden for low-income residents.
“When the declaration is announced, there will certainly be funds available not only for MLGW and local authorities, but also for individuals,” Cleek said.
Meanwhile, city council members questioned MLGW officials as to why the power restoration process had taken nearly two weeks.
On February 3, Memphis received snow and ice from a storm that stretched from Texas to Maine. Memphis received up to 0.5 inches of ice accumulation, some of which caused branches and trees to snap and crash into power lines.
Winter Storm Landon was the fourth-largest natural disaster to hit Memphis in terms of peak customers affected, but Memphis has experienced progressively stronger storms over the past 20 years, with the worst being Hurricane Elvis in 2003 and the most recent a derecho dubbed the Tom Lee Storm ” in 2017.
“I’ve looked at your major storms and out of the 15 storms, 14 of those 15 have happened this century, so I think one of the things that we’re looking at as a community is how we’re going to secure our infrastructure to be able to.” to be able to cope with increasingly intense environmental events,” Councilor Jeff Warren said, noting that last summer tree cleanup teams were attacked by thieves who prevented them from clearing branches that could have mitigated this year’s storm.
MLGW officials said they were waiting for safe conditions for contract crews to be released to carry out repairs.
Customers were also slow to learn about the issues due to infrastructure damage that blocked MLGW’s text alerts.
“We are committed to getting better. We’re not at our best yet,” said MLGW President JT Young.
Young also partially blamed Shelby County’s infrastructure, noting that networks of underground power lines were more likely to be in east county and overhead power lines were more in central Memphis, where many low-income communities live. While 40% of the MLGW lines are underground, most were outside of the 2-40 city loop.
“As people migrated east, our standards for what we built changed, so the majority of our buildings are on the east side of Shelby County,” said Don Roberts, reliability engineering supervisor for MLGW.
“Memphis has a much higher percentage of customers,” he added.
MLGW officials are now working to re-evaluate their damage assessment strategy, including making advance preparations for storms to restore traffic signals at key intersections, optimize crew efficiency and improve communication with customers. Officials plan to disable text alerts due to severe damage until they make the appropriate corrections.
MLGW officials also plan to review their storm recovery plan, participate in the community, and activate a crisis team ahead of storms to bring recovery efforts to the attention of all city officials.
Mayor Jim Strickland and MLGW officials also announced the formation of a citizens’ committee to find and recommend ways to improve Memphis’ infrastructure.
“I really think you did your best, but I think you found that you have to prepare and do a lot better going forward,” Councilor Cheyenne Johnson said.
MLGW has suspended all shutdown fees for non-paying customers and has offered bill payment assistance while considering interest-free loans to help eligible customers with electrical problems caused by the storm.
The utility has also partnered with Mid-South Food Bank to host mobile pantries.
Council members plan to meet with MLGW officials over the next few weeks to discuss improved communication strategies.