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Rural Missouri Magazine

 

Ice Storms Make
Good Neighbors
Missouri crews help restore power in
Arkansas and Oklahoma

by Jim McCarty

photos by Kenny Morris, Barton County Electric Cooperative

Imagine doing five year's worth of work in just three weeks. That equals the colossal task accomplished by electric cooperative linemen who came to the rescue of beleaguered crews in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas following a pair of devastating December ice storms.

When the first storm hit Dec. 13 Missouri co-ops sent 80 linemen to help out in Oklahoma and Arkansas. They had barely returned when a second storm hit Christmas Day.

Before the last lights were turned back on Missouri's electric co-ops would send 122 additional linemen into the fray along with countless trucks, trailers and other pieces of equipment. Some would stay away from their homes until Jan.12.

So grateful were the people in Arkansas and Oklahoma for the assistance from Missouri that at one point crews from Webster Electric Co-op were greeted by a man who literally bowed down in the road as they passed. The Webster men reported back to their office with awe at the sight of working in total darkness, then seeing the whole area light up when repairs were made.

In all, 23 Missouri co-ops sent crews to help restore power. "They turned out to be our lifesavers," says Neal Frizzell, vice president of member services at First Electric Co-op, Jacksonville, one of the Arkansas systems that found itself in harm's way. "I heard nothing but good comments about how hard they worked. Before their trucks stopped moving they were getting the doors open and their tools out."

Echoed Bill Rue, an employee of Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, Ozark, "We went from nothing to 20,000 members back on in 11 days. Those crews you sent were wonderful."

More than half of Arkansas Valley's membership found themselves without electricity for as long as three weeks. Other systems were hit even harder.

Texarkana-based Southwest Arkansas Electric serves 25,000 meters in an area of 4,500 square miles. On Dec. 26 not a single meter was turning. A downed transmission line left the entire system in the dark. Damage there was so severe that 840 additional linemen from surrounding states went to work on the system. Local crews were still mopping up from the disaster three weeks later, replacing more than 2,000 broken poles.

What makes a Missouri co-op so eager to help restore power in another state? Pemiscot-Dunklin lineman Tim Davis, who helped First Electric during the storm, knows why.

The Bootheel co-op he works for suffered outages during the Dec. 13 storm. The next day crews from nearby Ozark Border Electric were on hand to help restore power. "We felt fortunate we had neighbors helping us," said Davis, who had a scant two weeks to recover from the first storm before working a second in Arkansas. "We know the feeling and other co-ops do too."

Joe Stafford, a lineman from Webster Electric who also volunteered to lend a hand, agrees. "It's an experience," says Stafford, who has faced more than one winter storm at the Marshfield-based co-op. "The members of a co-op appreciate it. It's always a good feeling to go help somebody."

He says it makes a huge difference when a co-op has help. "When you've got a disaster like that it may take our own guys weeks and weeks and you probably would give out before it's done."

Ben Harper, manager of Sac Osage Electric Cooperative in El Dorado Springs, knows what it's like to be the one needing the help. He recalls two devastating storms that hit his system, one in 1972 and the other in 1985. Harper was a lineman for the co-op when the '72 storm struck. At that time linemen climbed poles instead of working out of bucket trucks.

"The bad part is being able to hang on. That year it was so bad the safety belts kept slipping. I even tied barb wire on to help it dig into the ice."

Harper said when the call came in to send assistance to Oklahoma he had no problem getting volunteers.

"Right away we had four volunteer. Then I checked down there and they said they could use some of our service trucks. We had four other guys who just jumped into those trucks and headed out. We had a list of others who were on standby."

Once they arrived, the crews found almost total devastation in both states. Ice-covered pine trees crashed down on power lines, snapping poles like match sticks.

The crew from Sac Osage quickly repaired a section of line, turning power back on for a large number of people. But when they stopped for supper the power went out again. Thirty more poles had snapped under the weight of the ice and all the hard work would have to be repeated.

Some crews reported seeing power lines normally the size of a finger swollen larger than a soda can from the accumulated ice.

In all 4,600 poles broke in southeastern Oklahoma alone.

At Arkansas Valley Electric Co-op the ice was so slick linemen had trouble just walking. But the innovative workers made ice shoes from sheet metal, rubber strips and screws that helped them get around. They also used 12-gauge shotguns to blast ice-laden limbs.

As fields thawed mud became the biggest problem. Bucket trucks sunk to their axles in the muck, and bulldozers had to be brought in to drag them out. The 4-wheel-drive trucks with chains Missouri crews brought were in demand in the rugged terrain.

Crews worked 16-hour shifts, grabbed a quick meal and as much sleep as possible and headed out again. Line work always has the potential to be dangerous. But safety is even more of a consideration under the demanding conditions of an ice storm.

"You've got to be extra careful," Stafford says. "We know the safety rules, we apply them every day. Maybe we are a little more cautious."

Nothing brings out the sixth cooperative principle — cooperation among cooperatives Ñ better than a disaster.

"We were the recipient of ice and help and then we sent help so we have experienced both," says Pemiscot-Dunklin Manager Skip Alsup. "Let me tell you we were proud to send the help. You forget sometimes how vital your neighbors are."

 

 

 

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