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By The Staff

By Gov. Steve Beshear

 

The late-January winter storm that slammed into Kentucky tested not only our infrastructure but our spirit.

 

Belying its glistening beauty, the relentless accumulation of snow and ice caused such devastation that its impact has been compared to that of an earthquake.

 

Nearly 800,000 families and businesses – representing almost 36 percent of the state’s energy consumers - lost power.

 

Entire communities were cut off when all communications – land lines, cell phones and even emergency communications – were destroyed as lines, poles and entire transmission towers snapped or were bent.

 

Some 97 water treatment plants were affected, with 64 losing power, affecting supplies to 234,000 customers.

 

Roads were impassable.

 

More than 35 deaths were attributed to storm-related causes.

 

And conditions were such that 101 counties and 87 cities declared states of emergency. Communities spread over more than 32,000 square miles needed various degrees of help.

 

Calling on every resource at our disposal – federal, state, local, public and private - I quickly set in motion a relief effort of a magnitude never seen before in the history of the Commonwealth.

 

The response included an “emergency disaster” declaration and eventually a “major disaster” declaration from President Obama himself, the call-up of the entire Kentucky Army National Guard, the transporting and installation of 157 huge generators and setting up some 192 shelters where families in survival mode could move.

 

It also involved the efforts of thousands of dedicated state employees – road crews, public health workers, state troopers, forestry officials, Division of Water inspectors, fish and wildlife officers, emergency management officials and others.

 

As of this writing, more than two weeks after the first wave of the storm slammed the state, more than 1.2 million meals and almost 2 million bottles of water have been delivered to families, and emergency workers have walked door to door to every house at least once to check on people in the hardest-hit counties.

 

The job isn’t over. Just over 26,000 customers remain without power.

 

We will not rest until the last house has electricity and heat, the last property is cleared and the last family is safe.

 

But we must think long term as well.

 

In the days and months ahead we will be looking to see how we can improve our emergency preparedness and response capabilities.

 

As I’ve said in various media conferences, several issues already come to mind:

 

  • Should we require water treatment plants to have backup generators, and how do we work with local communities to pay for them?
  • How can we better educate the public on issues like the dangers of carbon monoxide – which has killed at least 11 people in the last couple of weeks – and how to use backup heat sources in the proper way?
  • How can we improve our communications systems to maintain connections in times of emergency when those communications are the most crucial?

 

Our evaluation must be strategic, and it must involve a diverse group of officials.

 

It also must take into account the harsh economic realities that confront government on all levels.

 

However, we must do everything we can to protect Kentuckians from and during unpredictable situations like this.

 

I was proud to see how our state rallied together, and how friends, families and strangers helped each other, often ignoring the hardships they themselves faced.

 

The unsung stories are countless: The firefighters who walked 5 miles through snow and ice to check on people in Dawson Springs. The National Guard soldiers who saved an elderly couple from carbon monoxide poisoning in Hardinsburg and those who saved the four teens from the frigid waters of a creek in Daviess County. The students and staff who kept the Murray State University radio station going 24/7 so residents had a source for relief news. The many people who opened their homes to neighbors.

 

Kentuckians are at their best when times are toughest. Let us get through the aftermath of this storm and learn from it.

 

- Steve Beshear is governor of the commonwealth of Kentucky.