Region still banged up from storm

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published January 6, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 4, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.
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West Tree Service workers pick through a maze of downed trees, limbs and wires Dec. 27 in Hot Springs. Similar scenes were common across the Tri-Lakes region following a powerful winter storm that dumped a combination of rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow on the area.

Even with clear roads and the power fully restored over the Tri-Lakes region, people are still dealing with the aftermath of the Christmas Day storm that paralyzed communities, stranded motorists, hurt tourism and other business, cut the lights for around 200,000 Arkansans and was officially a disaster.

“People are kind of snakebit right now,” Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, the city’s tourism and convention agency, said Wednesday. “Nothing good comes out of weather like this; it is a big negative. It hurts everyone’s business and people’s wallets who are spending money in ways they normally would not have, because they were trying to keep everything going while the power was out.”

The first white Christmas in 80 years lost a lot of its charm when much of the area saw ice, as well as more than a foot of snow in some locations.

Ice and snow made travel hazardous throughout the area, but in Hot Springs Village, downed trees and broken limbs made driving especially treacherous.

“We had barely enough snow to cover the roads at the eastern end of the Village,” said Ricky Middleton, interim public safety director for the gated community of Hot Springs Village. “We got hit with around 10 inches at the western end, and it caused a lot of problems with motorists, as they did not suspect heavier snows ahead.”

Middleton said the snows and downed trees stranded several motorists, and some became stuck after they tried to go around the trees and branches. The interim chief said even some police and rescue vehicles had to be pulled out that first night.

Gov. Mike Beebe declared the storm vicinity a disaster area. Garland County Judge Rick Davis also declared a disaster for his county. In an announcement from Davis, he said members of the Arkansas National Guard 189th Rapid Augmentation Team stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base came to Garland County two days after Christmas armed with chain saws to help clear roads of downed trees.

Reports from the Arkansas State Police said U.S. 70 to Hot Springs was blocked for a while because of a fallen tree.

The storm was made worse because of the high winds that accompanied the weather system. Garland County recorded winds of 30 to 40 mph on Tuesday, said John Lewis of the National Weather Service forecast office in North Little Rock. The winds created many of the problems that caused limbs to bring down power lines or short out transmission lines.

Greg Asbell, a spokesman for Entergy, said the power outages totaled those caused by an infamous ice storm in 2000.

Tori Moss, communications coordinator for First Electric Cooperative, said power was cut for around 30,000 of their customers on the night of Dec. 25. By Dec. 31, “power had been restored to all members with the exception of around 20 in Saline County,” Moss said in an email Monday.

Power was restored to those last homes by 9 p.m. Dec. 31, Moss reported in another email.

The power outages hurt area businesses, even if some businesses were not affected by the blackout.

“One of the few places in Malvern with lights is the downtown area,” Nikki Launius, executive director of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce, said during the power outage. “We wanted to get the word out to bring in some customers, even if they came in just to get warm.”

She said the chamber offices were open for people to come by and get warm, and to use their WiFi for communications and to recharge phones and laptops.

Warming centers were also open in Hot Springs and Benton and other communities.

Perhaps hardest hit was tourism, especially in Hot Springs.

One of the season’s most popular attractions, the Holiday Lights at Garvan Woodland Gardens, had to close, losing the last week of attendance.

“Our first concern was for the safety of not only our visitors but our workers,” said Bob Bledsoe, executive director of the gardens, in an announcement Dec. 26. “We decided to close the light show.”

The gardens will be closed in January to get the light displays down and take care of any damage. Closing after New Year’s Eve until Feb. 1 is an annual event for the gardens, Bledsoe said.

Sherre Freeman, marketing director for the gardens, said the lights had been drawing record crowds. She said more than 60,000 people visited the gardens before the storm struck. The attendance was slightly more than was recorded for the entire lights season in 2011. She attributed the big turnout to the warmer weather during late November and early December.

It will take a while to measure the full economic impact of the storm on the region. Restaurants and hotels have seen a boom from feeding and housing the hundreds of utility workers brought into the region to help restore power. Landscaping companies or almost anyone with a chain saw might find business good in the weeks ahead, Launius said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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