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Tuesday, July 3,2012

Blackout a major headache for local businesses

Unrelenting heat hasn’t helped any

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Dustin Franz
Photo Caption: Through the ongoing heat wave and power blackout, "no ice" signs have become an all-too familiar sight. These ice bins are at Dale's BP uptwown.

"So, got your power back on yet?"

On Monday, that had to be one of the most popular conversation-starters around Athens.

And the most common handmade-sign message, posted at local groceries and carryouts, was without a doubt "No ice."

"After 12 hours without power, why would people think we still had ice?" marveled Lee Jones, a co-owner of the C&E Grocery on Richland Avenue. "You can have the puddle on the floor, that's about it."

All over the Athens area, people were comparing notes on power restoration in their homes and neighborhoods, and sharing stories about how they were coping with the major power outage that was caused by a violent storm Friday night in the midst of a punishing heat wave.

To add to the problems, Le-Ax Water District announced a boil order Monday and reduced pressure caused by the power outage.

As of Tuesday, power had been coming back in patches around the county since then, apparently starting with the East State Street area in Athens, parts of which came back on Saturday afternoon or even earlier.

The pattern in which the power was being restored seems a little sporadic. The Dollar General store at the far end of East State Street, for example, got electricity back hours before businesses closer to the center of town.

"We weren't even affected by it," reported store manager Amber Lambert Monday. Lambert said the store lost power around 6 p.m. Friday, but had it back by 7 a.m. Saturday when it was ready to open.

DURING A TELEPHONIC PRESS CONFERENCE Tuesday, AEP officials indicated that the patchwork way in which power is coming back reflects the fact that the utility tries to prioritize individual repair projects based on how difficult they will be, and how many customers will be affected. Thus, power might be restored to one side of a street before the other, they said.

Many businesses which, like Dollar General, have perishable food inventories were reporting big losses, but Lambert said her store, which has a couple of small food coolers, didn't suffer any.

"No, I was shocked," she said. "I was thankful."

The storm has been described as a rare "derecho," or straight-moving, high-speed "land hurricane," which took out trees, power lines and transmission structures across multiple states and initially left some 660,000 customers of American Electric Power without electricity in Ohio. (As of Tuesday, AEP Ohio was still estimating midnight Friday for 90 percent power restoration in the Athens County area.)

The power outage, and reports that it might last for days in some places, drove people to the handful of open gas stations around the county to fill up both vehicle tanks and gas cans for home generators. Stations on East State Street were packed with cars, though a reporter who filled up at one of them had only about a 10-minute wait.

Leah Watson, manager of the Valero gas station/carry-out on Columbus Road near the U.S. Rt. 33 ramp, said the business got power back around the same time as many on East State, early Saturday afternoon. A rush on gas followed shortly thereafter, she said.

"It wasn't too bad," she recalled. "We did have some traffic out in the road, but we had people out there directing it. It didn't get too crazy. We didn't have any fights break out or anything like that."

As for bags of ice, which were like bags of gold during the power outage/heat wave, Watson said, "I think we've sold out of ice three times since then."

Brian Lushbaugh, manager of the Save A Lot grocery on East State, reported that on Sunday,

"We sold about 600 bags in 40 minutes… We literally didn't even get it into the cooler. We were just throwing it off the palettes (on the delivery truck)."

Bottled water was also a hot commodity. Libby Markham, an owner of the Busy Day Market on Stimson Avenue, reported that her store got a small rush of customers after its power came back on Saturday afternoon.

"They were buying a lot of stuff to drink," she recalled. "We're out of water right now… We had ice for about an hour."

Jones of C&E reported big bottled-water sales, as well as a surge in sales of items that could be eaten without cooking, such as bananas, canned beans and canned tuna. Laughing, he recalled one customer who came in and announced that she needed only one item – fabric softener. "I thought, fabric softener? Today?" Jones said.

Though some stores tried to stay open Saturday, it was a challenge as the sun went down. Jones said he and other employees accompanied shoppers to help them find what they needed in the darkened store, and tot up their purchases with the cash registers non-functional.

"I was telling people that I was a personal shopper, and my qualifications were, I had a flashlight, and a clipboard and a pencil," he recalled.

The BP gas station/carryout on Richland Avenue didn't get power back until very early Monday morning; according to employee Amy Williams, it lost "quite a bit" of business because it couldn't pump gas, and also lost some perishable food items.

Ice? "Oh, yeah; we sold that out Friday night or Saturday morning," she said.

FOOD LOSS WAS A BIG PROBLEM for many local businesses. Lushbaugh of Save A Lot estimated he had to throw away $10,000 worth of perishables before power was restored. Early on, he tried to give some food away to local food banks, but found that without power themselves, they had no way to refrigerate it.

Markham of Busy Day estimated her food losses at around $3,500.

"We lost a lot of the stuff in our display coolers," she said. "I saved a lot of our gourmet-to-go meals, because we spend a lot of time on them… I saved the Grater's ice cream."

Choice items were saved by putting them into big chest freezers at the business, which stayed cold because they already had a lot of frozen items in them, she said. With power still out at her Athens area home, she added, she's making her own ice supply by putting water in ziplock bags and freezing it at her business.

Jones of C&E had no estimate on how much food he lost, but a visit to the store Monday showed some badly depleted coolers – as well as signs announcing some perishable food for free, "use at your risk."

The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACENet) on Columbus Road is home to many food-production businesses, and faced big potential losses when the power went out Friday night. Thanks to timely help from Hocking College, however, "we were able to minimize it," according to ACENet President and CEO Angie Maiden.

With Hocking College President Ron Erickson stepping in to expedite matters, much of the perishable food on site was transported to refrigerators at the Inn at Hocking College, which had power.

"Dr. Erickson was fantastic," Maiden said. "He pulled out all the stops to help our businesses."

Due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the power outage, some businesses may have been shut down even after they got power restored, because of employees being stuck at home and other reasons. While the Valero gas station and other businesses on Columbus Road were open Monday, for example, two thrift stores on the same road – New to You and ReUse Industries – were closed.

The Columbus Road Diner & Burgers lost and then regained power around the same times as East State Street businesses. The small restaurant's usual hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., reported manager Hoy Chin, "so it didn't hit us too hard. Of course we had to throw away a lot of food products."

Perhaps a bigger impact, Chin said, was the fact that the storm threw a wrench into the business's planning to take advantage of Ohio Brew Week, which drew many out-of-town visitors to Athens and packed local hotels.

While the diner hoped to catch some of that business, Chin said, "we didn't think we could even open Saturday morning," and didn't get the business open until the afternoon.

However, he added, there was a silver lining; with many people lacking electricity at home, the following morning many new customers came to the diner to get coffee and breakfast they couldn't fix in their kitchens.

"We saw a lot of people we don't usually see," he said.

WHILE MANY PEOPLE WERE gassing up their vehicles and filling gas cans for generators, many others were deciding that now was the right time to get a backup power source of their own.

Ken Burke of C&E True Value Hardware on Richland reported that the store had sold out its six gas-powered generators, and has people on a waiting list to buy more whenever they get delivered.

Don Richards, manager of Lowe's on East State Street, said that store moved 250 to 300 generators off the shelves in the immediate wake of the power outage – at an average price of nearly $500. (Larger standby generators are also available, but these need to be installed at a home or business by experts, and wouldn't have been immediately available for use.)

As soon as it became obvious that the big power outage was in the offing, Richards said, the Athens store arranged to have generator shipments diverted from other areas. Even with the added stock, he said, demand was high, and tempers of customers sometimes flared as they tried to obtain the devices.

OVERALL, ACCORDING TO AN OFFICIAL of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the impact of the storm, heat wave and power outage on local business has been dire. Even among companies that had gotten electricity back, she said Monday, many still be lacking phone service or Internet connections.

"It's pretty hard being a business with no phones," noted Chamber President Wendy Jakmas.

Burke of C&E Hardware struck a more optimistic note, however, suggesting that the weekend's nasty summer storm was not as bad as a winter storm in January 2009 that brought Athens County to a temporary halt.

"This isn't anything like the ice storm," Burke said.

The blackout doesn't seem to have triggered any kind of crime wave; according to Athens County Sheriff Patrick Kelly Monday, the only upsurge in calls his office saw after the storm was for domestic disputes. This is to be expected, he said, as the heat and tension from the weather situation cause tempers at home to fray.


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Our power came back on earlier than expected (Monday, on Briarwood), but it's back off as of this morning (Thursday). One friend told me her power has been restored— and then lost—at least four times since the storm hit.