Doomsday KC

Kansas City’s biggest power outage ever left the area shivering in the dark

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

Trees groaned and snapped under the weight of the ice amid the 2002 ice storm, causing damage that paralyzed much of the area. The damage was reflected in this block in Olathe.
Trees groaned and snapped under the weight of the ice amid the 2002 ice storm, causing damage that paralyzed much of the area. The damage was reflected in this block in Olathe. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The mercury topped 60 degrees the weekend before Jan. 29, 2002. On that morning, The Star’s local forecast called for a return to wintry, if ho-hum:

“Chance of light snow late today. … Some accumulation is possible.”

A warm air mass carrying rain floated in from the west. An arctic front from the north stalled over a three-state region, dropping temperatures near the ground to below freezing.

The result was ice — up to 3 rock-hard inches of it. And Kansas Citians knew from past experience that ice, like termites, can be a silent, unstoppable destroyer.

Area residents wisely stayed off the roads. But in their homes they could only wince at cracking noises outside. A big tree splitting under the weight of all that ice often was followed by the lights going out.

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JOHN SLEEZER THE KANSAS CITY STAR

When falling branches didn’t knock out power, exploding transformers or the slightest gust would.

Most of the city went dark and stayed that way for days. At one point during the freeze, about 1 million residents — more than 60 percent of the metro population — were without power.

This was by far the most extensive outage in Kansas City history.

“We’ve never had anything close to 60 percent of our customers being out,” said Chris Kurtz, senior director of operations at KCP&L.

As leafy and prone to severe weather as Kansas City is, the sight of massive downed branches is common. But on occasion the city gets walloped.

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JOHN SLEEZER THE KANSAS CITY STAR

The “October surprise” of 1996 dumped more than 6 inches of wet snow on trees still thick with leaves, causing thousands to break. About 240,000 area households lost power. Before that, an ice storm in March 1984 cut power to a similar number of homes and cost the city $2.4 million in cleanup costs.

Neither of those storms caused the destruction and outages that came in 2002. Just in Kansas City proper, a half million trees were damaged or destroyed, including some thought to be 200 years old. The city’s cleanup estimates aproached $20 million. For its part, KCP&L spent $50 million to restore electricity.

Over several days the storm produced a human toll, too. With portable generators spewing fumes to bring power and heat into homes, at least two area residents died from carbon monoxide poisoning and dozens were sickened.

Emergency rooms swelled past their capacity to treat people injured from slipping on their stoops, being exposed to cold or battling fallen limbs. Hundreds of patients. More than 1,000 others were turned away.

With power lines shorting out and producing surges, Kansas City Fire Department dispatchers for a time were receiving 100 calls for emergency service every hour. Crews responding to blazes were hampered by heavy limbs blocking access to fire hydrants.

But maybe the biggest takeaway of the 2002 ice storm is that residents learned to do without.

“This is kind of fun — I hate to say it,” a Fairway mother told The Star. She and her family played chess and Monopoly by candlelight in their living room.

Many others found refuge with friends and relatives. Three days after the storm, more than 30 churches and community centers had converted their facilities into family shelters.

More than 3,000 workers rounded up by KCP&L and other utilities performed heroics to reconnect homes and businesses with electricity and telephone service. (Landline phones remained the norm in 2002.) The crews came in from 16 states.

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JOHN SLEEZER THE KANSAS CITY STAR

But it couldn’t be done overnight. After first servicing nursing homes and hospitals, “we had to get power in hotels so workers coming in had places to sleep after their 16-hour shifts,” Kurtz recalled.

It took 30 hours of pelting rain and sleet for the ice to build up. The final KCP&L customers were switched back on nine days later.

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