By CHUCK BARTELS, Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A cold rain fell across Arkansas on Friday, washing away some of the Christmas Day ice and snow that knocked out power to 194,000 customers — including businesses that rely on post-holiday sales — of the state's largest electric utility.
Entergy Arkansas said it had completed about 40 percent of its repairs by Friday, but that just under 100,000 were still without electricity. The pace of repairs has slowed, the utility said, because crews are going into areas with more significant damage.
Many in Little Rock, Hot Springs and Malvern won't have their lights and heat back until Tuesday — longer in areas with the most difficult repairs. The forecast for Little Rock for Friday night was a low of 26 degrees, with a chance of freezing rain.
Hugh McDonald, president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas, acknowledged customers' growing dissatisfaction at a Friday news conference, but said another 1,000 linemen and support workers were coming from out of state, which means a total of 5,000 utility workers would be on the job by Saturday.
McDonald said he wished he would have had more workers on the ground earlier, and blamed forecasters for not indicating until just before the storm hit that central Arkansas would bear the brunt.
"Clearly we'd like to be farther along," McDonald said.
Little Rock, once projected to get 3-6 inches of snow, ended up with 10.3 inches, preceded by a coating of freezing rain and followed by gusty winds that tore down limbs, trees, power lines and utility poles.
McDonald said the publicly traded company, which serves 700,000 customers, relies on the National Weather Service for forecast information. After the news conference, Entergy spokeswoman Julie Munsell said in an email that Entergy has numerous resources for obtaining weather information, including use of Impact Weather, a commercial weather service out of Houston.
McDonald said Entergy hadn't estimated the cost of the restoration, but guessed it'd be "in the tens of millions of dollars." McDonald also defended Entergy's $15 million tree-trimming program, which came under criticism after back-to-back ice storms in 2000 did similar damage to the grid.
The storm system, which worked its way east after Christmas, has been blamed for at least 16 deaths. The National Weather Service said Friday that the storm spawned more than a dozen tornadoes in southern Alabama.
The Arkansas outages are hurting area businesses, said Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jay Chesshir. People are taking care of their homes and trying to stay warm, not going out shopping — not that they could at closed businesses, he said.
"This time of year with folks ... looking for retail opportunities during a time of year when many things go on sale, it will be difficult to make up completely but it certainly can be lessened when the power returns and people are in the mood to buy," Chesshir said.
He noted that places that sell perishable goods, such as grocery stores, have had to throw away a tremendous amount of stock.
But Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Director Richard Weiss said he expects no overall impact to state tax revenues, even though the storm hit during a busy shopping season.
"People are going to go out and redeem their cards, go out and shop and do stuff. If they don't do it now, I think that they will do it in the next month or so," Weiss said.
He noted that the storm missed the economic engine of northwest Arkansas and that many affected businesses have insurance to cover certain losses, so that should keep business tax revenues stable.
Outside a Little Rock grocery store, Connie Ratcliff used a cane for balance as she unloaded groceries in the cold rain Friday. She said she hasn't had electricity — or hot food — since Tuesday.
"First hot coffee since Christmas, too," Ratliff said, hoisting a foam cup in the air as she got into her car.