The 2002 ice storm. And while we're largely focusing on thematic trends in this roundup of news, some stories merit exception, this one among them.
For many Durhamites, December 2002 was a time when the lights went out -- victims of an inch of ice that downed power lines throughout North and South Carolina -- and never seemed to want to come back on.
Even as neighboring communities saw power restored within days, Durham and Chapel Hill lagged the rest of the region, leading to angry cycles of blame and recrimination from the western half of the Triangle, and couldn't-help-it responses from Duke Power, which said the two cities just happened to be among both the last-hit and heaviest-hit cities.
The winter fun started on Wednesday, December 4, when a bad winter ice storm hit the mid-Atlantic.
Forecasters initially predicted only a modest level of ice accumulation, not a sufficient level to impact public services. Instead, an inch of ice gathered on branches and power lines.
Many power lines were brought down under the weight of all that ice -- or when tree branches fell on them.
Almost 350,000 customers of today's Progress Energy (then Carolina Power & Light) in the Triangle were affected in the Wake-centric service area. But that number was almost 150,000 in Durham and Chapel Hill, which were relatively speaking much more heavily impacted by the storm.
Schools and local businesses shut down, and residents hunkered down in the cold.
And residents discovered some of the unique perils of bad weather, from cell phones failing when their tower sites' batteries died, to the small problem of cordless phones being out of service without electrical power. Sales of corded phones soared.
So did those of kerosene stoves and lamps -- if you could find a gas station with both kerosene and electrical service. Sadly, carbon monoxide poisonings and illnesses soared as well, as twenty-first century Durhamites turned back to unfamiliar nineteenth-century methods of heating and cooking.
By Sunday Dec. 9, almost all of CP&L's customers in Wake and elsewhere were back online with power.
But Duke Power? Not so much.
At the end of Dec. 9, the N&O noted, tens of thousands of customers in Durham and Chapel Hill remained without electrical service.
By the morning of Wed. Dec. 11, one week after the storm, that number still hovered at the 50,000+ mark -- 36,300 in Durham, or one-third of those initially affected.
Duke Power began to tell customers that if they didn't have power already, it could be the weekend -- ten days from initial service loss -- before electricity might come back on.
Residents also began to complain about seeming inequities in service restoration. Southpoint came back to life within a day of power loss -- which Duke explained was due to its proximity to a major power backbone, nothing more, nothing less.
But some priority-service organizations, including a state hospital in Butner, complained they didn't get power soon enough -- and couldn't get through to Duke in some cases. In fact, the City found that its emergency plan with the utility was decades out of date, with out-of-service phone numbers and contact names who'd long left the utility.
Naturally, the whole mess led to a wave of complaints and accusations. Mayor Bell complained that Durham was getting short shrift from Duke Power, and that loaned electrical linemen he spoke with in the hotels they were staying in were surprised Duke was only putting them in on 12-hour shifts, versus the 16-hour shifts they were used to with their own utility companies.
The N&O would note in its later analysis that CP&L had a much smaller area to focus on, but also noted that Duke Power had cut back its in-house lineman staff throughout the 1990s.
Additionally, the storm hit South Carolina first, and hard, and the Charlotte-based utility initially sent crews there. Durham, sitting at the end of the utility's service area, got caught up in being last.
Reinforcements from other utilities were slow in coming to Duke, and when they did, the utility sent them to a staging area in Charlotte first, and then doubled-back some to Durham.
Duke defended its 12-hour day schedules, arguing that it was bound to be a long recovery in areas like Durham where up to 90% of customers were impacted, and that it did so for workers' safety. CP&L staff worked 16-hour day shifts.
Duke also noted that it cleared up service problems much faster than it had after Hurricane Fran devastated the region in the late 1990s, though given the outrage over those issues, that's not much to be proud of, one would think.
Ironically, the whole mess happened a few months before the 30-year franchise between Duke Power and Durham came up for renewal. Yet state regulators and rules -- and the fact that even a municipal takeover of Duke Power's franchise area would require a buyout of utility infrastructure costing into the hundreds of millions of dollars -- made any threat of a booting out little more than a threat.
Photograph credit: Flickr user pravin.premkumar, licensed under Creative Commons (link)