LITTLE ROCK — Warmer temperatures and sunny skies await weary Arkansans still trying to cope with the aftermath of a winter storm that has left hundreds of thousands without power since Christmas.

More than 95,000 electric customers of Entergy Arkansas were still in the dark at 4 p.m. Friday. Entergy President and CEO Hugh McDonald said nearly 5,000 utility workers from 15 states were expected to be in the state by the end of the day to help with restoring power and clearing downed power lines.

"We understand some of our customers will be going through a fourth night without power, and we’re very understanding and we’re working as fast as we can to get the lights on across Arkansas," McDonald said, though he cautioned that some customers in Hot Springs, Little Rock and Malvern could be without power until early next week.

More than 195,000 Entergy customers were without power at the peak of the storm that began Tuesday night and dumped ice and up to 15 inches of snow over a large area of the state.

"Restoration work continues across all of the effected areas in Arkansas and we expect to make significant progress restoring power to customers," McDonald said, adding he hopes warmer, drier weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday will expedite the process.

Rain, some of it icy, fell early Friday as crews went about their work. Temperatures nudged above freezing in some areas, allowing for some thawing of roads.

Light snow and sleet were forecast for Friday night over the northern half of the state. But the National Weather Service in North Little Rock forecast warmer temperatures and sunny skies for the weekend, with highs in the low 40s Saturday and in the high 40s Sunday.

Earlier this week, McDonald compared the Christmas day storm to a Christmas-time ice storm that struck the state in 2000, causing major damage and leaving more than 200,000 residents without power.

"This was a storm significant on the level of the 2000 ice storm," he said Friday, adding that gusty winds exacerbated the problem this year. "When you have a storm of this magnitude you are going to have significant outages."

After the 2000 storm, Entergy announced a major tree-trimming program designed to curb conditions that led to much of the damage to power lines.

At a news conference Friday, McDonald defended the program’s effectiveness, saying the state’s largest electric utility spends about $15 million a year to clear vegetation from power lines.

He blamed some of the delays in restoring power to customers this week on weather forecasts that predicted worse weather in the northeastern part of the state and not the 10 inches or more of snow that fell in the central part of the state.

McDonald said Entergy had about 100 contractors in Arkansas in advance of the storm, mostly in northeastern Arkansas.

"Given what the weather predictions were, we felt that was adequate," he said. "Certainly, because the weather predictions in Little Rock, the most populated area, were not as significant as what actually occurred we stepped it up after 48 hours, after day two, we finished up with about 42 percent of customers restored."

The company sought assistance from across the country after the storm hit, he said.

The Entergy chief estimated storm damages would reach "in the tens of millions of dollars," though the state has not release a damage based on any official assessment.

McDonald said he and other Entergy officials would study their preparedness and actions during the storm after all customers are back online.


On the Net at: