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Utility Crews Try to Assess Damage Toll

By Bob Vandewater Published: May 4, 1999
Electric, gas and telephone utility crews were working as fast as possible Monday night trying to assess the extent of damage to their systems in the path of the metro area Oklahoma tornado.

The highest priority was given to reducing the risk that downed power lines and gas line leaks pose to the public, utility industry officials said.

"Right now our first priority is to get downed lines out of harm's way," Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. spokesman Brian Alford said about two hours after the tornado plowed through the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.

Just a couple of hours after the tornado, Alford said the preliminary estimate was that about 80,000 OG&E customers lost power along the storm's path.

"There will be areas that it may be hours, if not days, before we can get power restored," he said.

Oklahoma Natural Gas Co. reported numerous gas leaks caused by homes and buildings being separated from active gas lines in affected communities.

People miles away from the tornado damage path reported the smell of natural gas was strong enough that they thought it was caused by a leak in their own home or neighborhood.

Although not wanting to be identified, one resident from the area of NW 33 and Walker, several miles from the damage area, said the smell of gas in her home was so strong it made her ill. But when she went outside for fresh air, she discovered the smell was stronger outside.

"I couldn't get fresh air because the air's not fresh," she said.

ONG crews reportedly were working rapidly to enter damaged areas to turn off gas pressure to lines with known breaks.

Alford said many downed OG&E power lines were laying across roads and yards.

"We want to get them out of harm's way as soon as possible," he said. "They may look as though they're not energized, but people should treat them as though they are. ... I would treat any visible power line as a hazard. And I would even be on guard for lines that may be covered by debris. I would want to wait until daylight, I would think, to even begin the process of trying to assess damage."

But with so many neighborhoods damaged or destroyed, people frequently reported having to drive or pass over downed lines to get into or out of areas or search for injured or missing people.

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