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I&M addresses downtown South Bend business owners, residents

By Annie Chang
Published On: Aug 06 2014 09:41:30 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 16 2014 04:37:54 PM CDT

It's been two months since the massive power outage that crippled downtown South Bend during one of its busiest weekends of the year with Notre Dame and Saint Mary's graduation ceremonies. Indiana Michigan Power on Wednesday held a meeting with DTSB businesses to try to explain what happened during that blackout. WSBT's Annie Chang has the latest.

SOUTH BEND -

Exactly two months after a massive power outage cripped downtown South Bend during a critical weekend for business, Indiana Michigan Power officials met with business owners and residents Wednesday to update them on the company's progress.

On May 16, a transformer fire resulted in a massive power outage that lasted three days, the weekend of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College graduation ceremonies.

I&M's president Paul Chodak III released the cause of that fire Wednesday, attributing it to a decades-old lead-insulated cable that failed and overheated. It melted holes in the insulation as well as the rubber-coated cable next to it. Gases from the cable accumulated in the manhole, and adding that heat caused a transformer fire.

That cable was one of the oldest in the system, Chodak says.

"As we go forward, we'll be looking to replace those cables, the lead cables," Chodak says. 

I&M also adds crews are trying to reduce the number of manholes that are still at risk because of the way they are wired. Right now, 10 percent of the downtown manholes have five primary cables when they only need two, Chodak says. Reducing that number reduces the risk for overheating.

When the power outage struck, Gavin Green had 94 residents to worry about, most of them elderly. Green, regional manager of Robertson Apartments on South Michigan Street, rushed to the building.

"We have 100 refrigerators, 100 kitchens, three elevators," Green says, "so it was a learning experience."

Green found it in his best interest to meet with I&M officials on Wednesday to find out more. He says he's optimistic about their efforts, after having heard their explanations.

"Short term and long term, I think they're doing everything they can and that's great," Green says.

Chodak explained to Green and two dozen other business owners the root cause of the problem, and that crews are working to identify at-risk transformers to fix them.

"We'll be doing some things starting today to mitigate that risk of failure again and going forward, we'll continue to come up with additional engineering solutions," Chodak says.

But while Green is confident, Sean McCormick of McCormick's Bar on North Michigan says he's heard these promises before.

"They've been saying that for years and years," says McCormick, who decided not to attendWednesday's meeting. "They're always updating the equipment, they're always rebuilding vaults. They're always doing something."

McCormick's Bar is not big enough to require a generator, so Sean lost thousands of dollars in business that weekend.

"Five, six, seven grand maybe? On a really good weekend like that? Sure," McCormick estimates.

It's a loss he's chalking up to an unreliable power grid.

I&M officials also acknowledge May's outage was not the first, and will not be the last.

"We're never going to get to a system that will never fail," Chodak says. "Things happen."

He adds this issue is different from what happened in 2001, another large power outage downtown that resulted in $20 million worth of repairs. That outage was a problem with the system, whereas May's outage stemmed from outdated cables.

Chodak says I&M has not determined how much these repairs will cost.