Rural Missouri Magazine

We're glad to lend a hand

by Barry Hart

by Barry Hart

Oak trees don’t bend. They are inflexible and that often proves to be their undoing. That fact became very clear to residents of St. Louis when the city’s storm of the century hit St. Louis on July 19.

The storm smashed once-mighty oaks into pieces, prompting the worst power outages in the 100-year history of AmerenUE, the investor-owned utility that provides power to St. Louis residents. Following a second storm that blew through the area two days later, more than 600,000 Ameren customers were without power.

In contrast to the brittle and inflexible oaks, willow trees bend. Willow trees flex before the storm and when the wind quits blowing, go about their business relatively intact.
There was a time when competing electric utilities did not get along very well. Old rivalries begun when the first electric cooperatives were started caused utilities to compete for the right to serve consumers.
This led to costly duplication of services that was never in the best interest of consumers.

All that began to change in 1989 when Missouri’s legislature passed House Bill 813. The new law let utilities sit down together and work out who would serve a given territory. The law ushered in a new period of good will among the three segments of the electric utility industry: cooperatives, municipals and investor-owned utilities.

If the passage of House Bill 813 was the beginning of this “let’s get along” attitude, the storm that hit St. Louis this summer was the pinnacle of cooperation that, like the storm, will go down in history as unprecedented. Not long after Ameren’s phone lines started lighting up with outage calls, the utility made the decision to call Missouri’s electric cooperatives for assistance. Cooperatives across the state responded by sending 95 linemen and their equipment to lend a hand.

There have been times in years past that electric cooperatives and investor-owned utilities helped each other out. These, however, were limited to pulling the occasional truck from the mud or providing directions to out-of-town crews unfamiliar with the local landscape.

During the flood of 1993, Howard and Boone electric cooperatives teamed up to supply power to the city of Rocheport when floodwaters washed out Ameren’s transmission lines. When electric cooperatives hold safety meetings and training classes, municipal utility linemen are invited to attend.

But no one can remember a time when electric cooperative linemen answered the call to help restore power for an investor-owned utility. When the call came in, no one refused, in large part because they clearly sympathized with the plight of those fellow Missourians suffering through a heat wave with no electricity to power air conditioners, refrigerators and fans.

Like the willow tree, your electric cooperative has the flexibility to do what is right. May we all be willows and never oaks when the call for help comes in.

Hart is executive vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.

(read more about Missouri new eminent domain law)

E-mail Barry Hart


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