NASHVILLE, Tenn. (March 12, 2015) – Snow and ice blanketed the Cumberland and Tennessee River basins twice over the past month, which severely hampered travel in rural areas. Despite winter’s effect on transportation, it did not prevent a handful of very dedicated Corps of Engineers employees from going above and beyond to keep hydropower plants operating and navigation locks open for the movement of commerce.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District’s personnel maintain 10 dams, nine hydropower plants and four navigation locks on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. It maintains 1,175 navigable river miles on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. The district also maintains and operates 14 locks at 10 locations on the Tennessee and Clinch Rivers.
Diane Parks, Nashville District Operations chief, said the staffs at many of these projects traveled in harsh conditions and some even slept at the workplace to ensure that electricity made it to the grid to provide much-needed power to keep homes heated, and to keep the nation’s waterways open to barge traffic delivering goods and services.
“The projects are in some very remote areas. It is especially commendable that our mission-essential employees braved the snow-covered back roads to report to work so the Nashville District could produce hydropower and keep the locks open,” Parks said.
The first winter storm hit the region Feb. 17 and its mixture of ice and snow paralyzed travel for about a week. The next round hit Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky March 5-6, making it difficult for Corps personnel to drive to and from work at the dam projects.
Tom Hale, Tennessee River Navigation Area operations manager, said there were a number of unsung heroes that made personal sacrifices and “came through” during the adverse conditions on the Tennessee River system of locks.
He lauded Lock Operator Brandon Smith, who worked a double shift and remained at Guntersville Lock after working double shifts until relief arrived four hours into his third shift. Lockmaster Ronnie Henson, who assisted with operations at Wilson Lock, traveled nearly three hours to relieve Smith, Hale said.
Hale also noted that Lock Operator Justin Gray reported for work seven hours earlier than his shift March 5 to ensure he was available for work when snow accumulated at Pickwick Lock. Gray also opted to stay in a local hotel to be sure he could make it back to work. Lock Operator Linda Caperton remained at Pickwick Lock after her first shift to make sure she would be present for duty again 12 hours later, Hale added.
The roads were also treacherous leading to Kentucky Lock in Grand Rivers, Ky., and the lock and hydropower plant at Barkley Dam in Kuttawa, Ky.
Caleb Skinner, Lockmaster at Kentucky and Barkley Locks, said employees had to make it to work despite the governor of Kentucky issuing a state of emergency, interstate highway closures, and multiple county road closures.
At Kentucky Lock, Skinner said Lock Operator Julie Howell stayed and slept at the project site March 5 to ensure she would be available for her next shift. Lock Mechanic Jeremy Wallace also made it to work to clear snow from the lock walls for the operator and customers.
“I couldn’t drive there (to Kentucky Lock), so I walked until I came across another employee, Jacob Traughber, who was trying to make it in to check on the status of the fleet boat,” Skinner said. “He was stuck but once we dug him out, he gave me a ride the rest of the way to work. I did, however, have to walk home,” which was a two and a half mile trek.
Skinner said at Barkley Lock the staff also maintained operations despite 15 inches of snow in the area. He credits Lock Operator Christopher Dean for hanging around after his shift at 2 a.m. the first night of the storm to ensure someone would be present for the next shift at 6 a.m. Lock Operator Paul Smith relieved him having traveled 20 miles to work. Lock Mechanic Bill Peek also made it in to clear snow from the lock wall, Skinner said.
The power units at Barkley Hydropower Plant kept producing power thanks to its dedicated workers, said Jamie Holt, Power Project superintendent.
Holt said Operator Andy Dowell arrived early March 5 to allow Operator Gloria Lovett to make it home since she lives a good distance away from the power plant. The previous snow storm Lovett had to spend two nights at work. Operator Cynthia Martin also braved the hazardous roads driving to the project.
Mechanic Brian Jones is credited for clearing the parking lot and entrance road at the Barkley Hydropower Plant and cleared the intake road and spillway section because he had to make spill changes. Brandon Pate, maintenance worker, also made it in to help perform a complete inspection of a generator, Holt said.
At Cheatham Dam in Ashland City, Tenn., personnel had to drive down the slick, steep and curvy roads to get to the project, said Freddie Bell, Nashville Area Office operations manager.
Cayce Tiesler, Cheatham Power Plant superintendent, said the roads that lead to the project on both the Ashland City and Charlotte sides of the Cumberland River leading to Cheatham Dam are a challenge in normal conditions, but add the snow and ice and the roads are very dangerous.
“Due to the dedication of our workers to make it to the power plant on both of the severe weather events, they committed to the difficult and dangerous drive to arrive to maintain our generators, spillway gates and equipment,” Tiesler said.
Tiesler said that Josh Barker, hydropower senior technician; Kenji Yamauchi, hydropower technician; and Josh Marcum, hydropower mechanic; supported the hydropower mission at Cheatham during the February and March winter storms, and Larry Myers, hydropower maintenance worker; Zona Bell, hydropower maintenance worker; and Ramiro Santoyo, hydropower mechanic; made it through the harsh conditions to work during the first snow and ice event.
Bell added that Mark Hall, Dallas Barfield, Tom Bell, Bobby Holt, Mark Worley and Mike Christianson also kept Cheatham Lock open during both winter weather events and also traversed down the steep roadways to get to work.
Similar difficult efforts to get to work in the wintery conditions were also reported at Cordell Hull, Center Hill and Dale Hollow Dams.
Olga Beddingfield, Mid Cumberland Area operations project manager, said Senior Mechanic Wesley Butler did not miss a day at the Cordell Hull Power Plant, and Park Ranger Jamie Summers was the sole person to staff the Cordell Hull Resource Manager’s Office during the first weather event.
At Center Hill Dam, Beddingfield said Civil Engineering Technician Tony Crow braved the roadways from Silver Point, Tenn., to the project, even driving off the road to get around a fallen tree in his determination to report to work. She added that Ron Gatlin, Center Hill Power Plant senior electrician, made it in Feb. 16 for an emergency job.
Beddingfield also lauded Brian Parry, a mechanic at the Dale Hollow Power Plant, who also braved harsh conditions to arrive early to clear a walkway, and also applied salt to make it easier to access the project for other employees.
“All of the Mid Cumberland Area offices were staffed through all of the snow and ice days due to the diligence and effort of various employees,” Beddingfield said.
In Eastern Kentucky, the Lake Cumberland, Laurel River Lake and Martins Fork Lake experienced lots of snow fall. Mike Looney, Eastern Kentucky Area Office operations manager, reported that the hydropower plants and resource management offices were all staffed, including Martins Fork where more than 18 inches of snow accumulated.
“Most all of the employees are accustomed to roads being less than optimum conditions. A lot of them drive four-wheel drive vehicles, which makes things much better when driving on snow-covered roads,” Looney said. “The employees out here understand that they’re critical to the successful operation of the Cumberland River System. They take their responsibility seriously and plan accordingly to fulfill their duties despite bad weather.”
The Nashville District’s workers support a lot of important missions, including navigation, hydropower, flood risk reduction, environmental stewardship, regulatory, recreation, disaster preparedness and response, and overseas contingency operations.
Lt. Col. John L. Hudson, Nashville District commander, said a lot of employees, including others not mentioned, supported the district’s vital missions and provided critical services when travel conditions were severe.
“I’m extremely proud of the dedicated professionals who made every effort to be present for duty,” Hudson said. “The operations at the dams, power plants and navigation locks have to continue 365 days a year regardless of the weather. The employees at our projects understand this very well and demonstrated their extremely high work ethic during the recent winter storms.”