Rural Missouri Magazine
The Wrath of Ivan
the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan Missouri's electric co-ops respond

by Jeff Joiner

Power lines lay in a twisted mass after Hurrican Ivan smashed the Gulf Coast. Missouri electric co-ops sent more than 100 lineman to assist in power restoration.

Imagine a storm so vast it would cover an area stretching from St. Louis to Chicago with sustained winds of nearly 130 miles per hour. And just imagine for a moment watching one of the worst hurricanes to strike the United States’ Gulf Coast in half a century knowing you were in the storm’s direct path. That’s what hundreds of thousands of people experienced in September when Hurricane Ivan struck.

Even before Ivan made landfall a great tradition was set in motion as dozens of rural electric systems from across the Southeast and Midwest were asked to provide help. Electric cooperative employees from around the United States consider themselves members of a large family and that is never more evident than following devastating ice storms, tornadoes and hurricanes.

That’s when electric cooperatives send linemen to help, even if that means driving 750 miles from El Dorado Springs, Mo., to Gautier, Miss.

Cuivre River Electric Cooperative lineman Mark Ziegler works with fellow linemen from the Missouri co-op to replace electric poles and power lines destroyed by Hurricane Ivan along the Gulf Coast of Alabama in September.

Missouri electric co-ops sent 101 linemen and 48 trucks to Mississippi and Alabama to help restore power. Though Missouri co-ops often help systems in neighboring states, this was the first hurricane Missouri co-op linemen had ever worked.

“It’s the cooperative way,” says Rob Land, director of risk management and training at the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, which organizes and dispatches Missouri co-op crews to other states following weather emergencies. “A few days before the hurricane hit my counterpart in Alabama called and said, ‘We’re going to need help.’”

“I’ve lived on the coast for 55 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Ace Necaise, manager of Singing River Electric Cooperative’s district office in Gautier, Miss. The cooperative serves more than 60,000 members in southeastern Mississippi with most of those crowded along the densely populated Gulf Coast.

A Gulf Shores, Ala., family surveys the devestation to one of two homes they owned along the Gulf Coast.

Necaise watched on TV Sept. 15 as Hurricane Ivan slowly rumbled north across the Gulf of Mexico after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean.

The storm, described by the National Weather Service as “extremely dangerous” and rated as a Category 4 on a scale of 5, turn slightly to the east in the hours before it struck land. Early on the morning of Sept. 16 the eye of Hurricane Ivan passed directly over Mobile Bay in Alabama, an hour’s drive east of Gautier, sparing the Mississippi co-op a direct hit.

“We dodged a bullet,” says Necaise.

Utility trucks from three different electric co-ops work to repair a destroyed power line.

Though Singing River Electric missed a direct hit, more than two-thirds of its members lost power with coastal towns suffering widespread damage. Ivan’s most destructive path, though, spread across the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida, continuing inland for hundreds of miles.

“Every single co-op in Alabama was affected,” says Darryl Gates, director of communications for the Alabama Rural Electric Association in Montgomery, who says that at the peak more than 325,000 Alabama electric co-op members were without power.

“What took more than 60 years to build was destroyed in a few hours,” says Karen Moore, head of public relations for Baldwin County Electric Membership Cooperative, which serves the Alabama Gulf Coast. The cooperative, based in Summerdale, lost power to all of its 56,000 members.

Ozark Border Electric Co-op lineman James Daniel walks out of a rugged area of coastal Alabama after working to repair downed power lines.

More than 500 electric co-op linemen responded to Baldwin County. They worked 14-hour days to replace more than 2,500 downed poles and replace thousands of miles of power lines. General Manager “Bucky” Jakins said his system was “in the dirt.”

“As the bucket trucks rolled into our parking lot in Summerdale, our employees were outside cheering that help had arrived,” Jakins says.

Missouri co-op crews first helped restore power for co-ops in Mississippi and then moved on to Baldwin, Clarke and Washington counties in Alabama. Trying to feed, shelter and organize so many linemen was no easy task. The cooperative put linemen in summer camps, community centers, church halls, on the floor of offices and in hotels not occupied by those displaced by the hurricane.

The linemen often came in from the job site to shelters without electricity and hot water, but morale remained high. The linemen realized they were helping thousands of residents without electricity. Many others had lost homes and all their possessions.

“It was unreal the people who would come by thanking you,” says Bobby Dickens, a lineman for Ozark Border Electric Cooperative in Poplar Bluff. “They all wanted to know when their lights were going back on, but they were still grateful to have us there. ‘You came this far to help us?’ someone said to me. They just couldn’t believe we’d come all the way from Missouri.”

A resident of Foley, Ala., expressed her gratitude to the hundreds of electric cooperative linemen who helped restore power in hard-hit Baldwin County.

In all, four powerful hurricanes struck the southeastern United States in a six-week period with damage to co-ops in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Co-ops from 20 states responded to those emergencies from as far away as Michigan and as close as next door. Mississippi’s Singing River Electric had to call back crews from Florida when it became apparent their co-op was going to get hit. Missouri co-ops received special praise for sending so many linemen.

“The Show Me State showed me,” says Fred Braswell, president and chief executive officer of the Alabama Rural Electric Association.

“We simply could not have recovered without the tremendous help from our neighbors near and far.”

“Cooperatives will always help cooperatives,” says the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperative’s Rob Land. “Mississippi and Alabama’s co-ops have told me that if we ever need their help, they’ll be here.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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