The lights were out for 11 hours after a damaged insulator caused all power to fail March 7 in the city of Amherst.
The phones started ringing early in the morning as mayor Mark Costilow reached out to schools, big businesses, and hospital staff with startling news: FirstEnergy’s main power feed to the city had a major problem.
Utility workers had spotted a flash of light on the lines. It signaled danger for the high-voltage line providing electricity to all of Amherst.
The plan was to throw the switch and power down everything from 1-4 p.m. so FirstEnergy crews could make repairs. Before they could — around 10:30 a.m. — the entire system crashed.
What followed was “not a state of emergency, but a state of extreme inconvenience,” the mayor later said, sitting down with the News-Times to review how the situation was handled and what it revealed about emergency preparedness.
Here is what we learned:
• Following an outage in 2003, battery backups were hooked up to traffic lights at most of Amherst’s major intersections. When the power went out March 7, they functioned well but their eight to nine hours of life were put to the test.
• Costilow said he wants to add more battery backups. They would come in handy at Cooper Foster Park Road and North Main Street, as well as Park Avenue and Rt. 58, said fire chief Jim Wilhelm. Neither has batteries and firefighters were scrambled to direct traffic at heavy spots.
• Police could use additional capacity for inbound phone calls, said Costilow. During the outage, the North Lake Street station was flooded by more than 4,000 non-emergency calls and 2,000 text messages.
• Lorain County’s Wireless Emergency Notification System was used to alert residents to the situation. You can sign up for free at https://goo.gl/G8XHEx to get WENS alerts for dangerous weather, water line breaks, and other messages. The News-Times Facebook page also automatically posts all WENS alerts as they are made available.
• Two full shifts of police officers were called to duty, as well as three dispatchers and one person handling just text communications. Twenty-four firefighters responded to the call to help.
• Few emergency calls resulted from the blackout. Police handled a minor crash, but nothing directly caused by the outage. Firefighters responded to three alarm drops on the Ohio Turnpike, a carbon monoxide issue caused by a generator running in a garage, and a residential alarm set off when power was restored.
• “Our concern was people turning their stoves on (for heat) and getting carbon monoxide poisoning,” Wilhelm said. Using stoves for heat without ventilation is a bad idea, he said. Some people ran carbon monoxide risks when idling their cars for heat or to charge cell phones. Surprisingly, no chimneys caught fire when residents turned to fireplaces for heat.
• Street department workers put up temporary stop signs across town, reminding folks that in an outage all disabled traffic lights become four-way stops. Those batteries started running very low and workers began the process of getting generators in place to keep the signs running.
• Lorain County Emergency Management Agency director Tom Kelley was called in for guidance. He reportedly put local officials at ease and counseled them about when a state of emergency could possibly be declared.
• FirstEnergy crews set up boom trucks next to the railroad tracks just east of the Nordson Corporation where the main power line is located.
• The Norfolk & Southern Railroad was extremely helpful, by all accounts. It supplied flaggers and switching teams to route its trains to alternate tracks, making room for power crews without delay.
• Giant Eagle, Sprenger Health Care, Tyson Foods, schools, and medical facilities were all concerns for city officials. Costilow said he started calling them as soon as it was clear the power failure was imminent; most business owners he talked to were extremely understanding. Some industrial sites do have backup power supplies, but not enough to handle a sustained outage, he said.
• The Amherst Schools chose not to release students early, saying it was unsafe to send children home to empty homes without heat.
• Instead, classes went on as normal, albeit with no lights. At Steele High School, the bells didn’t work but principal Michael May said students still went about their day like clockwork. Some classes in rooms without windows were moved to the lobby so students could work. Police officer Eric Layfield concentrated his attention on the front entrance, while May walked the halls for hours, making sure the building was secure and spirits were up. “I popped in some classrooms and teachers were teaching just like always. Was it perfect? No. But we were still learning and these kids were amazing,” May said.
• Tremendous pressure built up in Amherst’s water system without residents using washing machines, dishwashers, and other appliances at the normal load. Utilities workers opened hydrants in areas where they had concerns to relieve the pressure.
• Key municipal facilities have backup power. For example, Amherst’s wastewater plant was able to treat sewage at 80 percent of maximum capacity — that’s more than enough for a typical day. “A flood event or major rain could have impacted that. We’re blessed that didn’t happen,” Costilow said.
• Early in the day, the mayor lifted overtime limits and activated a “no reasonable expense barred” policy to keep the public safe. He gives city workers full marks for their handling of the situation.
• The power line in question is 60 years old, said Costilow. Aging electrical infrastructure is not a problem unique to Amherst. He said wear and tear was a big contributor to the outage; FirstEnergy attributed the issue to storm damage.
• Last year, Amherst fixed more than 100 telephone poles that were failing, fitting them with new insulators to prevent such problems. In the last few years, the city invested about $3 million in upgrades to its power lines. That doesn’t include roughly $80,000 to $100,000 per year spent on tree trimming to prevent limbs from falling on lines. “Internally we’re doing what we have to do to keep going, but we’re just at the mercy of FirstEnergy,” the mayor said.
• Power was restored shortly after 7 p.m. But restoration caused other problems in the power system, which shut everything down another two and a half hours.
• When electricity kicked in, officials were 30 minutes away from bringing in the Red Cross and opening two shelters: one at the Amherst Township garage and the other at the New Russia Township hall. Both were prepped for overnight stays for people in need. The Cleveland Red Cross was even notified and on standby.
• Had the outage continued, Costilow was prepared to start sending crews door-to-door to check on residents.
• “As a whole, people in Amherst stepped up to the plate and did what they had to do,” the mayor said. “The city pretty much functioned. It was amazing.”
• It’s true: A single line provides power to Amherst. Building a backup would be “astronomically expensive,” Costilow said. Since becoming mayor, he’s worked with AMP Ohio and FirstEnergy to investigate adding a second point of contact, which would cost in the neighborhood of $5 million. It could theoretically provide power from the west — but Costilow said the electrical system would still be vulnerable, even with the secondary feed.
• FirstEnergy plans to use a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment and high-powered binoculars, flying low and scouting the lines for additional problems.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.