An annual presentation on National Preparedness Month at the Johnson County Commission took on special meaning last week as officials began to investigate the cause of a power outage that took out the county’s phone, email and internet systems on one of the busiest days for car license plate registration.
The probable cause of the 24-hour outage was a lightning strike. But officials will have to dig deeper to find out how it was possible for the strike to take out so much of the system and how they can prevent it from happening again, said Joe Waters, assistant county manager.
The outage began around 10 p.m. Aug. 30 during an electrical storm, apparently due to a strike at the county communications center on Sunset Drive in Olathe. Although the county phone lines, internet and email were affected, the emergency 911 service was not.
The county was reconnected by 10 p.m. Aug. 31, with some things like the web site not going fully back on line until the morning of Sept. 1.
But a lot of questions remain. Experts have not pinpointed, for instance, exactly where the lightning hit, Waters said. There was no evidence of scorch marks or fire damage at any of the buildings on the hilltop site.
The county has a lot of lightning precautions already at the center, which opened in 2009, Waters said. The electrical wiring and plumbing is designed to prevent the facility from being damaged by strikes. The tall communications tower at the site is routinely hit by lightning during storms without sustaining damage, he said.
The best guess is that lightning hit the ground surrounding the center and damaged the lines with a surge of power, he said. Officials will investigate how the electricity was able to hurt some parts of the communications system while leaving 911 intact, he said.
“Lightning is very, very difficult to predict and control,” he said.
There are no damage estimates yet. Although crews could find no evidence of damage to the buildings, some electronic components needed to be replaced. More damaged components may be discovered as the county “shakes the bugs out” of the system, he said.
Commissioners praised county employees and technical contractors for their long hours fixing the problem.
Court business proceeded during the outage, with some limits on communications. In addition, people who could not register their vehicles during the outage have a 10-day grace period from Aug. 31 to get it done.