LITTLE ROCK 4 p.m. UPDATE
Entergy Arkansas is requesting nearly 4,000 workers to help restore electricity, the utility said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
Hazardous road conditions and traffic congestion are complicating restoration efforts for work crews, Entergy said, adding that the threat of falling trees and limbs is posing a risk to crew members.
“Getting the lights back on will be a long and pain-staking process,” Hugh McDonald, president and chief executive officer of Entergy Arkansas, said in the statement. “Nature dealt us a one-two punch yesterday with winter precipitation and high winds that severely damaged our electrical grid and left us with dangerous working conditions for our repair crews. We are asking customers for their understanding and patience as we restore power as quickly and safely as possible in a very hazardous work environment.”
The utility reiterated its estimate that customers in the most heavily damaged areas should expect the power failures to persist for seven or more days but added that many places will see power restored more quickly.
Crews will primarily assess damage to the system Wednesday and Thursday, and restore service where it is safe, the utility said. Thursday should bring faster restoration efforts after the extend of the damage is known, Entergy added.
Entergy Arkansas provides electricity to about 700,000 customers in 63 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.
A historic Christmas night winter storm dropped upwards of a foot of snow on parts of Arkansas, shutting down workplaces, downing trees and power lines and turning travel treacherous.
Tens of thousands of Entergy customers were in the dark, meanwhile, and crews worked through the weather conditions to get the lights — and heat — back on. The utility reported on its website shortly after 3 p.m. that just more than 166,000 customers were without electricity. More than 88,000 of those were in Pulaski County.
As of 3 p.m.., more than 39,000 First Electric Cooperative customers were in the dark, more than 6,900 in Pulaski County. First Electric serves parts of 17 counties in central and southeast Arkansas.
Gov. Mike Beebe issued an oral emergency declaration Wednesday morning and followed it up with a written proclamation that afternoon. The action is intended to "ease the dispatch of out-of-state power crews throughout Arkansas," the governor's office said on Twitter.
The governor's office says the declaration "helps the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management work as efficiently as possible with other state agencies when providing assistance."
The National Weather Service in North Little Rock said the snow total there was 10 inches while Little Rock officially recorded at least 9 inches. It marked the snowiest Christmas day for either city and was the first time measurable snow fell in Little Rock in 86 years.
Other preliminary snow totals reported overnight to the weather service include 10 inches in Conway, 8 inches in Lonoke, 7.5 inches in Sherwood, 11 inches in Mayflower, 3.5 inches in Salem, a foot in Austin, 5 inches in Hardy, 5 inches in Russellville and 13 inches in Morrilton.
The weather service warned in a bulletin put out Wednesday morning that travel will be "hazardous" and the problems could last for some time. Temperatures Wednesday will only reach the mid-30s, meaning melting will be "minimal."
"Area roads are snow packed and treacherous and many are closed at this time," it said, noting on its Twitter account that hundreds of vehicles were reported stranded in the North Little Rock area. "Much of the snow fell on top of freezing rain which has allowed them to deteriorate even more. Travel is not recommended due to the hazardous conditions."
Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation, said it's a "no-brainer" that motorists should stay off the roads Wednesday if at all possible.
"You don't need to be out at all," he said by phone Wednesday morning. "Travel conditions are not good. With any luck, we're going to get above freezing today. A few hours above freezing I think will help conditions tremendously."
The Highway Department typically maintains an online map with road conditions across the state, but the communications system is down and the map is inaccessible. Speaking generally, Ort said, highways in the central part of the state extending toward the northeast were hardest hit.
"Northwest Arkansas, for once, was not hit very hard," he said.
Road crews are working in 12-hour shifts to try to clear the roads.
"This is a round-the-clock event for us," Ort said.
John Robinson, the senior warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said that while the falling snow is long gone from Arkansas, the fallen snow's effects will linger.
"Some sunshine will be seen in most places today, starting the melting process. Tonight, however, temperatures will drop into the teens and 20s, which means refreezing will occur and there will be hazardous driving conditions in many areas again Thursday morning," he said in a statement.
Schools are mostly out of session for winter breaks, but a number of offices have canceled work because of the conditions. Arkansas state offices in Little Rock are closed to all except essential personnel.
There was no estimate on when power would be restored for Entergy customers in the state's second large power failure in less than a week after heavy winds Thursday.
"Road conditions are making travel very dangerous and slow," Entergy said on its website. "Our crews are working to restore power as quickly as possible."