A look at the icy conditions and debris MLGW crews were dealing with in South Memphis on Feb. 5. (Photos: MLGW Twitter)

by James Coleman —

The Memphis City Council’s Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW) Committee met Tuesday with members of the area provider’s leadership, who delivered a post-mortem of the utility’s response to the recent ice.

Stretching from Texas to Maine, the severe weather event rolled through the nation’s midsection on Feb. 2, leaving a blanket of snow and ice, as well as millions without power. MLGW customers weren’t immune. 

The peak outage was 186,000 with more than 233,000 – over half of MLGW’s customers – going dark at some point. Total repairs are estimated to be $14 million. If declared an emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could reimburse 75 percent. 

Felled trees and falling limbs were the primary cause. 

“That was probably our number one challenge in this storm is the impact of trees. Not just on circuits, but trees downed the line behind fuses where we had other work,” said J.T. Young, president and CEO of MLGW.

“We had more damage than we typically would have experienced in previous storms that our employees, that our crews and others had to deal with.” 

Council members were quick to praise the efforts to restore power.

Crews worked day and night in sub-freezing conditions. In addition to repairing downed lines, they had to replace primary circuits and smaller fuses, among other issues. By midnight Saturday, around 99 percent of outages had been restored.

However, one percent had to linger in the cold.

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

It was pointed out that if the current trend in severe weather events continues, the utility will have little choice. 

“I was looking at the storm dates, and 14 out of the 15 major storms happened this century,” noted Councilmember Jeff Warren. “So, I think one of the things 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 weather and environmental events.”

For many members, the solution was to run power lines underground. 

Currently, 40 percent of MLGW’s lines are below ground. Most of these are located in the eastern part of the city. Older parts of town, such as tree-laden Midtown and South Memphis, were constructed when standards were different. The costs for upgrading one mile were conservatively estimated at $1.3 million by Young. The total cost for Memphis would be over $6 billion.

“I think everybody understands it’s wildly expensive to do underground power lines, and we don’t have the money to do it all at once,” said Councilmember J. Ford Canale. “I think what this body and this city would like is some kind of long-term strategy…especially those areas that need it the most.”

Another member said that the council, itself, should take ownership of any shortcomings in service or response.

“Although this is not a monolithic organization, the Memphis City Council is responsible for this because infrastructure improvements delayed is infrastructure improvements denied,” said Martavious Jones.

He pointed out that a strategy could have been put in place earlier, but the council waited until Young was hired in 2018. Last year, a three percent rate increase was passed to make the upgrades. 

“We could have been in year four of a five-year plan. We punted. Colleagues, we should hold ourselves accountable,” said Jones. 

“When we look at the investments we have to make for our community, sometimes we’re going to have to bite the bullet, and it costs money to do so. We delayed those increases to pay for those infrastructure improvements.” 

Young defended the overall implementation of the plan.

“That five-year plan was designed to reduce outage periods by over 50 percent, and I think we are well on our way to getting that done, even though we are a little bit behind where we thought we would be,” Young said.

MLGW’s customer response during the storm was affected by damage to its communication infrastructure, with the storm severing communication links. As a result, text alerts were spotty or uninformative. Call centers were overwhelmed, too.

Canale spoke to the need to “beef up” call centers, noting that the next storm is a matter of when; not if.

“Especially for those who don’t have access to a computer or the internet … because maybe a telephone is the only means of communication they have,” he said.

Such an upgrade would increase the likelihood that such customers “can call and actually talk to a human being and get some answers,” Canale said. “Or at least some updated information, if possible.”