electric cooperatives wage a heroic recovery from winter's wrath
|Crews at Laclede Electric Cooperative of Lebanon work to restore
power following devasting ice storms in January. The storms caused
$52 million to co-op systems.
called the worst ice storm in Missouri history. The winter storm of
Jan. 12-14 left a swath of destruction from the southwest corner of
the state all the way to St. Louis. Along the Interstate 44 corridor,
a blanket of ice covered trees, brush and power lines.
Two weeks later,
Missouri’s co-ops wrapped up initial recovery
from the most devastating natural disaster ever to strike their systems.
haven’t seen ice storms of this magnatude for quite a while,” says
Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather
St. Louis office. “You had major ice accumulation. You’re not
talking a quarter or half inch. It was much thicker than that. That’s
a significant event.”
And significant it
was, especially for the state’s
electric co-ops. As many as 120,000 co-op members lost power. Recovery
from the storms is estimated to have cost more than $52 million and
prompted the largest mobilization of emergency assistance in Missouri
electric cooperative outages during the peak of the emergency
From New-Mac Electric
in Neosho, all the way to Cuivre River Electric in Troy, major portions
of the electric distribution system serving rural Missouri came crashing
to the ground under the weight of ice.
Just a quarter-inch
of ice adds nearly 500 pounds of weight to a pole-to-pole span of a
power line. Missouri linemen found ice as thick as soda cans surrounding
lines. Co-op after co-op reported lines lying on the ground and poles
and cross arms snapped like toothpicks.
“The line conductor
was so heavy, our large anchor rods were being pulled plumb out of
the ground,” says Victor Wood, a line foreman at Laclede Electric
Cooperative, located in Lebanon. “It would almost take a dozer
to do damage like that.”
The storm itself
came in three waves, beginning on Friday, Jan. 12 and continuing through
Sunday, Jan. 14. New-Mac Electric, which serves the southwest corner
of the state, was the first to feel the wrath.
were predicting freezing rain all day. It got to be two o’clock
and nothing had happened.
hours later it was raining so hard you couldn’t see.
It was 31 degrees.
pulled off at a right of way with some crews and watched miles
of three-phase cross-arms blow off of poles and poles start
breaking . . .
one point in time, we were down a road and had a tree crash
behind us, another tree crashed in front of us.
never seen anything like it in my life.”
— Glenn “Mitch” McCumber,
New-Mac Electric, Neosho
Like other co-ops
in the storm’s path, New-Mac was able to handle
initial outages with its own resources. But late Sunday, Mother Nature
got the upper hand. With no hope of keeping up with the carnage, New-Mac
called the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives in Jefferson
City, activating the statewide organization’s emergency response
procedures. Within minutes, AMEC staff began calling electric cooperatives
outside the storm’s path to enlist help.
Meanwhile, the storm
marched across the state. Ozark Electric Cooperative, based in Mount
Vernon, lost power to 20,000 members. In one instance, a 2-mile section
three-phase line collapsed. Every pole along the line lay on the ground.
Similar damage was reported in much of Ozark’s nine-county
area. All told, the co-op replaced more than 2,000 poles in 14 days.
a wire breaks, all the weight on the other side pulls real hard on that
pole. When the pole breaks, it puts weight on the next pole,” explains
John Davis, Ozark’s operations manager. “You’ll lose 10,
12 poles before it gets enough weight off.
get one span up and the next span would go down,” he
says. “You go down and put it back up and watch it go down in another
lines sag to the roadway from the weight of ice. Photo courtesy
Webster Electric Cooperative.
The same heartbreaking
scenario played out all along the storm’s
path. Nearly one-third of Cassville-based Barry Electric’s 9,000
members were in the dark. Southwest Electric of Bolivar had 18,000 outages.
Webster Electric at Marshfield had 12,500.
Cuivre River Electric
of Troy lost power to 20,000, but with few broken poles, it recovered
quickly. Not so at Lebanon’s Laclede Electric, where major
damage required a two-week effort to restore power to 20,000.
Electric of Dixon has less than 10,000 members. Nearly 6,000 of them
were without power.
guessing better than 60 percent of the system was down,” says
John Greenlee, manager of Gascosage Electric. “You could
just watch it domino to where about every feeder had problems.”
numbers of outages hit Crawford Electric of Bourbon, Three Rivers
Electric of Linn and Inter-county Electric of Licking. Significant
outages were also reported at Eldorado Springs’ Sac-Osage Electric
All told, 13 Missouri
distribution co-ops and two transmission co-ops were severely impacted
by the storm.
think of all those people who are out. You’re thinking
about all the people who are on oxygen and all sorts of health
issues. You think about the nursing homes.
“You think about the livelihood of people. We had calls in that talked
about hog confinements and turkey and chicken. So you’ve got people’s
livelihoods that are being affected.
“All of this just kind of rolls through your mind, all at once, and you
know that you’re totally helpless.
“That is the worst feeling. You just knew that there wasn’t anything
you could do to stop it.”
Gascosage Electric Cooperative, Dixon
By Monday, reinforcements
were on their way from electric co-ops outside the storm’s path.
Thirty Missouri systems sent crews to help their brethren. In addition,
AMEC rallied troops from 50 other co-ops in seven states: Arkansas,
Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The Mississippi
crews were particularly eager to lend a hand, in appreciation of Missouri’s
help following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
A veritable army
of private contractors joined the co-op linemen. All the help swelled
the ranks of home system crews tackling recovery efforts to more than
a monumental recovery is a complex task driven, first and foremost,
by the need to keep the men safe.
Valley Electric Cooperative lineman Mike Masten was one of hundreds
of workers who came to the aid of their brethren
at storm-ravaged co-ops in Missouri.
turn people loose on an electrical system that don’t
know anything about it,” says Gascosage’s Greenlee. “You
have to take your workforce and split it up and have birddogs sent out
that know your system, know how it feeds, know where the breakers are.”
the next two weeks, these hearty men set about to restore in days an
electric distribution system that had taken decades to create. They
worked systematically, restoring power to substations first, and then
three-phase lines, the backbone of the co-op system, before moving
on to single-phase lines and individual services. Under the watchful
eye of dispatchers and line foreman, who ensured the crews were safe
at all times, they concentrated on restoring power to as many people
as possible, as quickly as possible.
a numbers game,” says
Wood. “If you can spend 30
minutes and put on 100 people or you can spend 30 minutes and put
on 10, of course you want to put on the 100.
“People would say, ‘Stop
here and you can have it back on in 15 minutes.’ Well
in that same 15 minutes you might be able to energize 15 or 20 people,” he
says. “Your heart goes out for those people but you’ve
still got to look at the big picture and get as many people on as
you possibly can.”
The procedure works
co-ops made quick progress restoring large numbers of people the
first few days following the storms. While initially more than
120,000 co-op members were without power, by Wednesday, Jan. 17, that
number had been cut in half, thanks to the efforts of linemen who battled
fatigue and bitter cold to restore power.
|An Ozark Electric Cooperative lineman uses a live line tool to
shake ice off a line before beginning work. The weight of ice on
lines toppled poles and pulled anchors from the ground.
of us worked anywhere from 16 to 18 hours a day, two straight
weeks,” says Jim Broyles, a line foreman at New-Mac Electric
in Neosho. “We
were pretty fortunate to not have a lot of wind but you’re
talking single digits.”
very hard on a man,” says Wood. “Their fingers
crack and bleed from the dryness of the skin.”
cleats on their feet and all manner of layered clothing to
fend off the cold, lineman carried out work that is difficult
on a normal day — and
nothing short of heroic in the conditions they faced.
heroic efforts were not limited to the lines, however. A recovery like this
requires phenomenal support behind the scenes, as well.
Each of the affected
co-ops went into 24-hour crisis mode. Everyone from front counter
clerks to warehousemen to member services staff lent a hand, often
performing tasks far outside their normal duties. The huge influx of
men working on the lines needed to eat and a place to sleep. Laundry
had to be done. In many cases, it was the co-op’s office personnel
who pitched in to meet these needs.
Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives CEO Barry Hart addresses
linemen working at Laclede Electric during a 5 a.m. safety briefing.
The ranks of workers at affected co-ops swelled as additional help
came from electric co-ops in Missouri and seven other states.
Co-op employees tracked
down lodging wherever they could find it. Many co-ops managed to secure
hotel rooms in areas still with power. Southwest Electric found vacant
furnished apartments and bought linens for the beds so their guys would
have a place to sleep. Many a co-op employee slept at the office night
Feeding all the help
was a major challenge, especially in the early days before power was
restored to restaurants. Co-op staff fired up barbeque grills and packed
sandwiches for sack lunches. And every morning, the crews began their
day with a hearty breakfast, whether cooked by staff in the co-op community
room, or served at a local schoolhouse.
In fact, efforts
to feed the crews produced some of the most heartwarming stories of
community support during the two-week emergency.
wonderful, wonderful community came to our aid,” Greenlee says
of Dixon. “We had churches step up and say, ‘Don’t
worry about the suppers we’ll take care of
“We had banks donate food. We had people cook it. The supermarkets donated
food,” he says. “It’s one of
those things that you’ve
got to be careful not to list who did what, because
it was a community effort.”
|New-Mac foreman Robert Nunley gathers ice-covered conductor from
a frozen right of way. Electric lines crashed to the ground from
the weight of ice.
At Southwest Electric,
a local Wal-Mart donated meat to feed the co-op
after the store lost power overnight. Restaurants
fed lineman free of charge, and the local Mennonite
community came forward as well.
they brought in probably 50 or 60 pies, cakes
cobblers, homemade bread, sweet rolls. And
they wanted to do more than that but we had already
made arrangements to eat,” recalls Jerry
Divin, Southwest’s manager. “It’s
memories like that, you’ll never forget.”
Ozark Electric’s Nixa office, one member
called in and was quickly moved by the receptionist’s
distress over the deluge of outage calls.
just really changed my way of thinking
right then and there,” says
Shari Jones, a Nixa resident who was without
power for only two days. “It
just really hit me. I said, ‘I have
electricity. Thank you. Life’s
great, but what can I do to help you.’”
took it upon herself to feed nearly 100
men working out of Ozark’s
James River District Office for three
nights in a row. She solicited pizzas,
buckets of fried chicken and other donations
from local restaurants. One evening,
Jones cooked 40 pounds of sloppy Joes
with groceries provided by a local bank.
Line workers assemble a crossarm on a replacement pole.
don’t know these people from
Adam. I go and drop my payment off,
it,” Jones says. “But I
just felt horrible that I was sitting
here with electricity and so many people
had nothing. I knew there was a need.”
the state, members showed their support
in many ways. Local businesses volunteered
road tractors to haul poles or sent
their dozers into the field to extricate
service trucks mired in the mud.
Board members took up chain saws and joined
brush crews. Other members showed
their support with a thermos of hot coffee
or a honk and wave.
With power out to
some members as long as 14 days, tempers surely wore thin and many
people lost patience. Every co-op heard its share of angry calls. Several
systems saw the worst in man, as thieves made off with electrical conductor
lying on the ground.
were a good number of times when people would drive by and
stop or give you a thumbs up or give you a thank you for
what you’re doing. ‘You guys be careful,’ and
stuff like that.
“There was one time a guy stopped and said, ‘Thanks for all you’re
doing. I know it’s going to be days before I get power, but I appreciate
all you’re doing.’
“It wasn’t like we were right there working in his yard and he knew
he was going to have power that afternoon. He knew it was going to be days yet,
but he was still thanking us.
“That’s as big of a motivator as anything.”
New-Mac Electric Cooperative, Neosho
But by and large,
co-op officials say, the membership recognized the enormous challenge
faced by the men on the lines — many
of whom had family at home in the dark and cold — and
they stuck by their cooperative.
Employees of Missouri’s
electric cooperatives will not soon forget the horrific ice storms
of January 2007. Neither will they forget the historic recovery effort
they mustered over 14 long, cold days.
linemen saw electrical distribution systems they had worked their entire
careers to build, come crashing down overnight. They also witnessed
the extraordinary accomplishment of rebuilding that system in just
a matter of weeks.
The work was hard,
the hours long and the conditions fierce. There was heartache along
the way as Mother Nature destroyed work they had just completed. There
was trepidation as another storm, one week after the first, threatened
to start the process over again.
A contract lineman working for Ozark Electric Co-op begins to repair
lines encased in ice.
almost epic proportions when warming temperatures released ice — and
thereby tension — off
the lines. Lineman watched in horror as lines galloped, slapping
together, burning out connectors, tripping breakers, and again thrusting
much of the southern half of the state into the dark.
But, in the end,
the linemen and the co-op staffs that support them, persevered. It
took at least 14 days for the last member capable of receiving power
to once again enjoy the benefits of electricity but the task was
just professionalism and dedication to the job, is all I can say about
it,” says Southwest Electric’s
Divin. “They knew
they had a job to do and their spirits stayed high. I just couldn’t
be more proud of them — not only my people, but the contractors
and the other people that came in as well.”
No one ever
wants to go through another storm like this again, but the
sad fact is that nature can exact its wrath at any time. The one
reassuring note through all of this, though, is that the cooperative
spirit is strong.
started down around Oklahoma City and Muskogee, and basically went
plumb to St. Louis,” Divin
says. “It impacted the lives of thousands
and thousands of people.
aspect of it, we don’t know yet. It’s going
to be significant. The devastation to the landscape, those
scars will be visible for a long, long time to come,” he
“It was massive. It sure was.”