Western Kansas remains without power after storm

As ice begins to melt, Sebelius tours damaged areas

Utility crews worked to restore electrical power to thousands in western Kansas after a winter storm covered the area in snow and ice, but warming weather, in some cases, worked against them.

As temperatures climbed above freezing Wednesday, snow and ice melted, turning the ground into mush and causing problems for heavy utility trucks trying to get through the mess. Melting ice, sometimes 5 or 6 inches thick around power lines, often dropped to lower lines, bringing them down again and slowing progress.

At one of the few gas stations around Montezuma that had power Thursday morning, Dan Brinkherhoff filled up seven containers with gas to use in his generators. Brinkherhoff said he needs the generators to run his water wells at his farm four miles outside Montezuma, where he raises goats, a few cows and horses.

He bought $38.95 in gas. “That will last me one day,” he said.

At a Mennonite school outside of town, a tractor was backed up to the school, where it was used to run an electric generator.

“They’re surviving, these people are tough out here,” Brinkherhoff said.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who declared a disaster emergency for 44 counties, toured the area Wednesday from the air and on the ground. While going through storm-damaged areas in Colby, Ulysses and Satanta, Sebelius said, “The size of this storm has brought more damage to this area than we’ve seen in years.”

The governor announced Thursday that she has requested federal disaster assistance for all 44 counties.

Still without power

About 60,000 people were without electricity at the peak of the storm, largely because 9,700 utility poles were toppled by the storm that blew into Kansas on Dec. 28 and intensified the following day.

Kansas National Guard spokeswoman Sharon Watson said Thursday that officials were trying to determine how many people remained without power and that it was slowly being restored. Utilities said that while they had restored power to thousands of customers, a few thousand still did not have power.

Utility officials suggested those in outage areas turn on front porch lights so they can be seen once power is restored, allowing crews to bypass those homes to move to areas where power is out.

Watson said it could be weeks before things get back to normal.

Cattle dying

Many worried about the fate of thousands of head of cattle trying to survive after the storm that dumped up to 3 feet of snow with 15-foot drifts and left thick ice around limbs and power lines. Kansas ranks No. 2 behind Texas with 6.65 million cattle on ranches and in feedlots.

The storm also had led to the deaths of cattle, as animals either froze to death or asphyxiated as snow became packed in their nostrils.

Kansas Livestock Association spokeswoman Scarlett Hagins said it was too early to tell what the long-term impact will be.

“We have no idea how widespread it is. We haven’t heard a lot of reports of animals being lost,” Hagins said. “Most of the reports we’re getting are from the southwest part of the state.”

Haskell County Commissioner Gene Ochs said dead cattle were piling up in feedlots in his far southwestern Kansas county.

One Haskell County feedlot owner told The Associated Press he had lost 450 cattle out of the 155,000 he has on feed preparing for slaughter and 20 dairy cows out of his herd of 7,500.

Still, Roy Brown, co-owner of Cattle Empire near Satanta, said his losses were not as bad as he thought they would be given the severity of the storm.

He noted his insurance would cover his losses, which he estimated at about $350,000. In a 1997 storm, he said, he lost 2,500 head out of the 130,000 he had on feed.

The Guard sent large portable generators to help restore power at water and sewage treatment plants in the communities of Utica, Winona, Gove, Grainfield, Quinter, Collyer, Almena and Park, and generators for shelters in Gove and Collyer. Once power is restored, the generators will be taken to other communities.

By Thursday morning, Midwest Energy had slashed its number of customers without power to 1,200, from a high of 6,000. Spokesman Bob Helm said the utility hoped to have all power restored this weekend or early next week.

All but 1,500 customers of Aquila’s original 20,000 without power remained in the dark Thursday morning. Spokesman Curt Floerchinger said the towns of Utica and Almena were still without power and accounted for about 500 of the outages.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. estimated 12,400 of the 36,030 customers who had lost power still did not have service Thursday afternoon.