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Area would not be paralyzed if major power outage hit here

Staff reports

If the power goes out in Clayton and Henry counties, officials are ready for it but it would still have a major impact on people's lives.

Officials at both hospitals in the counties say they have backup generators to lessen the impact.

Much of the problems across the area would be measured in aggravation of having gas pumps not pumping, no air-conditioning, loss of work, officials say.

Even at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest passenger airport, things would run smoothly with generators, officials said.

According to Barry Jenkins, Henry County's Emergency Management Agency director, a major power outage in the county would be an inconvenience, but not a disaster.

"Don't get me wrong. It's going to be a mess for a little while, but I think we'll be ready for it," he said.

But as far as losses, think of all the tons of meat and fish that would be lost in the two counties if suddenly the power went out.

Sybil Tomlin, co-owner of T&T Meats on Lee Street near downtown Jonesboro, said, "It would be a total loss."

Her business, with its walk-in cooler and other facilities to keep the fish and meat fresh, has thousands of pounds on hand at any given time.

"The fresh-cut stuff would go fast," she said.

The meat in the coolers might last four to six hours, she speculates, but then everything would just have to be hauled away and disposed of, she said.

Preparation for a power outage should begin at home, said Clayton County Emergency Management Agency Executive Director John Dalton.

"People should be prepared as if we were to have a severe winter storm when the power would be out for two or three days," Dalton said. "They should have the food and water to sustain themselves for three days."

Water is not a problem at first with a blackout but can become one when the water tower feeding an area are depleted and the pumps that refill the tanks are not working.

"You've got to have water. You've got to have food," Dalton said.

Also, Dalton advises the public to keep their freezer full and not to open it often once the power is out so the food will stay cold for a day or two. If the freezer is not full, Dalton recommended adding a gallon or two of water.

It's also a good idea to keep at least a half a tank of gas at all times as gas pumps may not be working. And people on home life support systems, such as oxygen machines, should be sure they have back up power.

If a major power outage were to occur here, Dalton said, the CCEMA would set up an Emergency Operations Center to monitor the crisis and offer the resources they had available. When those resources are used up they would then turn to the state for assistance, possibly asking for the National Guard to be deployed.

They could also open some of the county's schools that have emergency power capability to serve as cooling stations in the summer and heating stations in the winter, Dalton said.

In Detroit, former local resident Norman Price said he expects to be without power through the weekend but he's remaining cheerful.

Price is a Northwest Air Lines mechanic transferred when the company closed its maintenance base at Hartsfield in January.

"Luckily, I bought a battery-operated television for $10 at a garage sale last weekend," he said. "That and my candles will get me through."

Price said the weather is muggy and, with the air-conditioning out of commission, he's keeping the shades in his apartment drawn to ward off the heat. But he's also got a backup plan.

"If I get too hot, I'll go out and start the truck up," he said. "I've got a full tank of gas."

A massive blackout would not force Henry Medical Center to suspend any operations, according to spokeswoman Donna Braddy.

"We have backup generators," Braddy said. "In the event power went down, the system would immediately kick on. We have about 48 hours worth of fuel on hand and could easily purchase more."

Southern Regional Medical Center has emergency generators that would supply power to all critical areas, such as critical care and operation rooms, said Joe Baker, director of Plant Operations and Engineering at Southern Regional.

"It takes about eight seconds from the time the power goes of until it comes back on," he said.

Surgery rooms contain battery-powered lights and therefore medical personnel probably wouldn't see the lights flicker, Baker said. However, equipment used in surgery would have to be powered by the generators during a blackout.

Southern Regional's generators are tested for an hour every week to ensure they'll be ready for an emergency. The generators run on diesel fuel.

"If it was just the electricity that went out, we could run without for about two or three weeks," Baker said. "We would have to use the same fuel to provide heat to the hospital. So if we lost natural gas and electricity, we could run about a week."

Generators would also ensure the continued flow of drinking water from local taps.

Chris Wood is the public relations officer for both the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority and the Clayton County Water Authority. Wood said lightning strikes are not uncommon, so backup power sources are an important part of water-facility designs.

"Most of the critical pump stations and transfer stations, and even at the treatment plant, have backup generators that can run for quite some time in case of an outage," Wood said.

"It's hard to prepare for a major catastrophe like that," said Lindy Farmer, general manager of the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority.

The water authority maintains a three-way feed to its Towaliga pump station, which means electric power would still be available should one transmission line go down.

If they all go out, Farmer said, a portable generator would produce enough power to run one high-service pump.

"That would provide enough water, probably, to maintain the levels in our storage tanks for some time," he said. "I haven't run that particular scenario, so I don't know exactly how long, but I'll be looking into it."

Wendi Pruett, assistant public relations manager at Hartsfield, said generators would kick on immediately and passengers would be able to move through the airport safely.

As far as flights in and out of the airport, she said it would be a call by each airline as far as whether they could handle baggage, ticketing and the other functions.

In the airport itself, the terminal and each concourse have generators as well as some elevators. Things like the escalators and moving sidewalks would probably not function but lighting and reduced air-conditioning or heating would continue, Pruett said.

In Henry County, Jenkins, who is also chief of the County Fire Department, said the county hasn't planned specifically for a power outage. Instead, the EMA is working on an "all-hazards type of plan," he said.

The current emergency operations plan was formulated in 2000, and after testing revealed some areas with room for improvement, the county started rewriting it. Jenkins said the county is required to submit an updated plan to the state by February of 2004, anyway.

Under the plan, in the event of a disaster the county would set up an emergency operations center in a designated room near the emergency communications center. The room is equipped with a generator to provide backup power in the event of a power failure, so, Jenkins said, emergency officials would still be able to use phones, radios and computers.

Jenkins said that each of the county's emergency communications towers is also equipped with a generator. The radios used by police, fire and ambulance units have self-contained power sources.

Most of the county's fire stations have generators, Jenkins said. At the older ones that don't, the county has formulated a plan to get generators to them in the event of a power failure.

Jenkins said all the county's fire engines have the ability to pump water from a natural source such as a lake or pond in case a power failure keeps hydrants from working.

He also said that county emergency departments would be able to call in off-duty personnel in the event of a large incident, as did agencies in the Northeast on Thursday.

Staff writers Ed Brock, Diane Wagner, Clay Wilson and Trina Trice all contributed to this story.