MAYFIELD, Ky. – Gov. Steve Beshear deployed every last one of his Army National Guardsmen on Saturday, with his state still reeling after a deadly ice storm encrusted it this week.
More than half a million homes and businesses, most of them in Kentucky, remained without electricity from the Ozarks through Appalachia, though temperatures creeping into the 40s helped a swarm of utility workers make headway. Finding fuel — heating oil along with gas for cars and generators — was another struggle for those trying to tough it out at home, with hospitals and other essential services getting priority over members of the public.
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The addition of 3,000 soldiers and airmen makes 4,600 Guardsmen pressed into service. It's the largest call-up in Kentucky history, which Beshear called an appropriate response to a storm that cut power to more than 700,000 homes and businesses, the state's largest outage on record. Many people in rural areas cannot get out of their driveways due to debris and have no phone service, the governor said.
"With the length of this disaster and what we're expecting to be a multi-day process here, we're concerned about the lives and the safety of our people in their own homes," Beshear said, "and we need the manpower in some of the rural areas to go door-to-door and do a door-to-door canvass ... and make sure they're OK."
Staff Sgt. Erick Duncan of Murray said he and his colleagues have been putting in long shifts to open tree-littered roads. Duncan, who manned a chain saw, said he expects the assignment to last quite a while.
"It's a mess and we're just in the city limits," he said. "We're not even out in the county yet. And there's plenty of cities and counties to go to."
Thousands of people were staying in motels and shelters, asked to leave their homes by authorities who said emergency teams in some areas were too strapped to reach everyone in need of food, water and warmth. The outages disabled water systems, and authorities warned it could be days or weeks before power was restored in the most remote spots.
That uncertainty had many appealing for help and officials urging those in dark homes to leave, if they could — many were stuck in place by blocked roads and other obstacles.
The storm that began in the Midwest had been blamed or suspected in at least 42 deaths, including at least 11 in Kentucky, nine in Arkansas, six each in Texas and Missouri, three in Virginia, two each in Oklahoma, Indiana and West Virginia and one in Ohio. Most were blamed on hypothermia, traffic accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning.
In Kentucky, Beshear said late Saturday that officials believe the storm may have been responsible for as many as 21 deaths. He didn't give details and said 14 of those deaths hadn't been conclusively tied to the storm.
Beshear also said more than 700,000 Kentucky homes and businesses were left without power. The state's Public Service Commission had previously reported that 607,000 Kentucky customers were without power, a state record. But PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said the figure did not include municipal utilities or rural electric cooperatives within the Tennessee Valley Authority system.
Some warned some could be waiting weeks for power to be restored. Never mind that temperatures rose above freezing in some Kentucky communities Saturday, helping to melt ice from trees and power lines. The meltdown left a tangle of fallen trees and branches even as other areas still struggled with ice.
"More and more people are wanting to come the shelters," said Capt. Don Hodgson of the Paducah Police Department. "It's starting to set in that they're going to be without power — in some cases more than 30 days."
At Graves County High School in western Kentucky, where 490 sought shelter Friday night, Ruthann Taylor, 23, said she tried to ride out the early part of the storm at home with her 1-year-old son, but it got too cold.
"I woke up the next morning and my son was pretty much an ice cube," Taylor said. "I said 'OK, we've got to go."'
From Missouri to Ohio, thousands were waiting in shelters for the power to return. As far away as Oklahoma, around 10,000 customers still had no electricity.
In Missouri, about 150 Guard members were ordered out door-to-door to check on residents, taking the stranded to shelters and helping to clear emergency routes. All told, the storm knocked out power to more than 100,000 Missouri homes and businesses at its height.