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Bitter cold forces rolling power outages

by Tom Sissom | February 15, 2021 at 12:30 p.m.
Snow continues to fall Monday, as a limited amount of traffic travels on a section of the Fulbright Expressway in South Fayetteville. The National Weather Service is forecasting several inches of snow throughout the state through Wednesday and Thursday. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

About 5,500 customers of Southwestern Electric Power Co. in Northwest Arkansas were without electricity Monday afternoon during rolling blackouts because of prolonged bitterly cold temperatures.

The utility announced about 6 p.m. it had ended its controlled outages.

Electric utilities in the central U.S. cut power in parts of an electric grid the companies said was close to being overloaded by demand during the winter storm that has blanketed the region in snow. Temperatures stayed in the single digits throughout Monday.

More is on the way, with another system moving into the state this evening that could bring as much as another 10 inches in some areas.

"This will be on top of the snow that is already on

the ground," said Thomas Jones, a meterologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. "It is going to be so cold there is going to be minimal melting between storms."

Monday's winter storm closed state government, with the Arkansas House tweeting Monday the General Assembly will recess until Wednesday or until the storm allows for safer travel.

Northwest Arkansas is predicted to see temperatures near or slightly below minus-10 degrees with wind chills as low as minus-20 degrees today, Jones said, while Central Arkansas is forecast to see a low of 5 below zero with wind chills at minus-10.

"The last time that I can personally think of that we had temperatures below zero was back in the 1990s," Jones said.

Peter Main, a SWEPCO spokesman in Fayetteville, said most of the customers were in Lowell, Centerton and Prairie Grove and were without power for an hour or a little longer if it took more time to restore power.

SWEPCO announced just after noon Monday the company was temporarily interrupting power to parts of its service area in response to the extreme winter temperatures and to prevent wider outages. The company said it was rotating the areas affected by the controlled outages so customers weren't without service for more than a few hours whenever possible. Public health and safety facilities weren't affected, according to the utility.

Members of the Southwest Power Pool on Sunday asked all customers to conserve power for 48 hours beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. The Power Pool manages the electric grid across 17 central and western states including Arkansas.

Main said more controlled power outages are possible. He said providing advance notice to affected customers isn't possible. The company posts updates on its website and social media.

"We are monitoring the conditions across the entire multistate region," Main said. "We take our direction from the Southwest Power Pool."

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning from noon today to 6 a.m. Thursday for Northwest Arkansas. The area was already under a wind chill warning of 20 degrees below zero until 9 a.m. today.

The next round of snow is forecast to start this evening bringing another 4 to 9 inches through Wednesday. Temperatures are not expected to climb out of the teens until Wednesday.

Turn off the lights

Utilities asked customers to avoid using unnecessary lights or other electrical devices and limit the use of large appliances, like washers, dryers and dishwashers. Customers are asked to turn down thermostats by 2 to 3 degrees, especially overnight and consider wearing additional layers of clothing to remain comfortable.

Ashley Harris, vice-president for marketing and communication with Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation, said the requests to reduce consumption and the initial planned outages were reducing demand. Harris said Ozarks has plans in place, if needed, to implement the planned power outages but hadn't as of Monday afternoon.

"We're always prepared to make strategic, planned outages if needed," Harris said. "What's been done so far is having significant success in alleviating the power shortages."

Harris said many of the cooperative's business customers voluntarily reduced consumption and that has also helped. She said if power outages are implemented, the cooperative will post notifications on its website, online app and social media. She said if outages are needed they will range from one to four hours.

Law enforcement and emergency services agencies said most people appeared to be heeding warnings to avoid traveling during the winter storm. It helped that many government offices were closed Monday for the President's Day holiday.

Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, said temperatures Monday were too cold for rock salt and brine to work well, so workers concentrated on plowing the snow from interstates and state highways.

Sgt. Bruce Strain with the Washington County Sheriff's Office said deputies were out in four-wheel drive vehicles patrolling the more remote areas of the county. Strain, who was in the Winslow area Monday morning, said he had seen just a handful of vehicles on Interstate 49 and few on county roads.

"There's really not a lot of traffic and we haven't had many accidents," Strain said. "We've got all our guys out checking for people who might get stuck in ditches in areas where cellphones don't work very well. I definitely wouldn't recommend anyone getting out if they don't have to."

Sgt. Anthony Murphy with the Fayetteville Police Department said officers worked nine accidents since Sunday morning and had five calls to assist motorists who were stranded.

"We work a lot more accidents when it rains," Murphy said.

Channing Barker, communications director for Benton County, said the dispatch center received reports of fewer than 10 accidents since Sunday morning.

Keep the kids, dogs inside

While the winter storm kept many indoors, school closings offered children an opportunity to play outdoors in the snow.

Health care professionals said it's important to monitor the temperature and the wind chill.

Children are more at risk from the cold than adults because their bodies are smaller and they lose heat quicker, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Skin begins to freeze within minutes at a wind chill of 15 degrees below zero. The academy recommends children dress in layers, including insulated boots, mittens or gloves and a hat.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield suggests using the wind chill value as a guide. If the wind chill is 32 degrees or above, it's safe to be outside. With wind chill between 13 degrees and 31 degrees, indoor breaks should happen every 20 to 30 minutes. For wind chills below 13 degrees, children should be kept indoors.

Dr. Jack Herring with the Wedington Animal Hospital in Fayetteville, said pets are also at risk and some of the problems don't directly stem from the cold.

"Dogs that live outside need a heated shelter but dehydration can also be a problem because their water freezes," Herring said. "I treat dogs with chemical burns on their feet from having walked on de-icing chemicals. I'm seeing one now that blew out his knee slipping on the ice."

Herring recommended dogs be kept inside as much as possible during extreme cold weather. When they are outside, owners need to be mindful of how long they've been out, he said.

"Most dogs will let you know when they need to go out and they'll let you know when they need to come back in," he said.

Herring said cats who live outdoors are subject to the same risks as dogs and more. He said it's common for outdoor cats, searching for a warm place to stay, climb up inside vehicles where the engines are still warm. If the vehicle owner doesn't check before starting the engine the next time, the animal may be caught.

"I've seen them killed and injured from that," Herring said.

Tom Sissom can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @NWATom.

More News

Getting warm

The Salvation Army is operating warming centers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at its shelters:

Bentonville, 3305 S.W. I St.

Fayetteville, 219 W. 15th St.

The organization also is providing hotel vouchers and transportation. Anyone in need can call the Fayetteville office at (479) 521-2151 or (479) 251-0857 or the Bentonville office, (479) 271-9545.

7 Hills Homeless Center is limiting hours at its day center at St. James Missionary Baptist Church at 115 S. Willow Ave. Updates on the center’s hours are posted to or call (479) 310-5596.

Source: Salvation Army and 7 Hills Homeless Center

Tom Sissom can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @NWATom.


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