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KC powerless as icy barrage pummels the area, leaves behind disaster zone

DATE OF EVENT: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002

DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, Feb. 1, 2002, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The ice storm of 2002 was the worst in a century. It left hundreds of thousands in the Kansas City area without power, some for as long as two weeks. Almost 2 inches of ice accumulated, breaking tree branches, blocking roads and downing power lines. Damage was estimated at $111 million.

One of the worst storms in Kansas City history left about half the area’s households without power Thursday, prompting the governors of Missouri and Kansas to declare large sections of both states disaster areas.

The ice storm that blasted through Tuesday and Wednesday left most of the metropolitan area a dangerous tangle of downed trees, felled power lines and snarled traffic. Officials estimated that 20,000 fallen trees blocked streets in Kansas City alone, and that one-third of the city’s traffic lights were out.

“We are facing an emergency in this metro area … that is of a magnitude greater than we have experienced in the past,” Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said, with utilities reporting 350,000 customers without electricity at the peak of the outages.

From western Johnson County to Independence, from the Northland south to Grandview, the devastation easily outpaced that of October 1996 and March 1984, when storms also splintered thousands of trees and darkened hundreds of thousands of area homes. Schools and governments closed, as did many restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses.

During an intense 12 hours, from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday, Johnson County emergency dispatchers took 420 calls, mostly from people reporting tree limbs pulling down overhead lines. The Kansas City Fire Department dispatchers took 1,100 emergency calls in a 12-hour period; ordinarily, they receive 1,400 in a month.

By Thursday night, officials had attributed one death to the weather. …

Kansas City, Johnson County, Wyandotte County, Lee’s Summit, Gladstone and Liberty all declared states of emergency Thursday, a first step in getting outside financial assistance in the cleanup, and putting decision-making authority in the hands of emergency management teams.

The message to residents area-wide was simple:

“If you’re able to be at home, stay at home,” said Mike Selves, Johnson County’s emergency director.

“You’re better off.”

For those without heat and electricity, many area communities opened shelters. Meantime, KCP&L imported 300 electrical line crews and 150 tree-trimming crews from nine other states to speed the return of power to customers.

“This is the most devastating storm we’ve ever experienced in our 120-year history of serving the Kansas City metro area,” Bill Downey, KCP&L’s executive vice president, said Thursday. “We will be at it through the weekend and into next week. We plead for patience as we try to do this.” …

Officials estimate 95 percent of the trees on city right of way were damaged and as many as 20,000 blocked streets.

In the Northland, power outages were reported across southern Clay and Platte counties. From Liberty to Excelsior Springs and Kearney, thousands of residents were without power, and downed trees and limbs blocked roads.

At Kansas City International Airport, some flight delays were expected because of the storm and similar weather problems in Chicago and Detroit. Runways were operational, and some airlines faced fewer problems than they had when the storm struck Wednesday. …

Barnes said it was the most widespread ice-storm and power outage she could recall.

It easily beat October 1996, when 6.5 inches of wet snow swamped thousands of trees that split under the weight. More than 240,000 area households –– including 175,000 KCP&L customers –– lost power, some for several days. KCP&L suffered $11.3 million in losses. Cleanup stretched for weeks and cost Kansas City $3.6 million and Overland Park $1.8 million…

The storm brought an abrupt halt to the remarkably pleasant weather that had reigned in Kansas City for most of this winter.

The Star’s Donna McGuire, Lynn Horsley, Kit Wagar, Matt Campbell, Finn Bullers, Summer Harlow, Linda Man, John Petterson, Anne Lamoy, Benita Y. Williams, Richard Espinoza and Bill Graham contributed to this report.