Rural Missouri Magazine

Icy Aftermath
Electric co-ops' struggle to recover from January
ice storm doesn't end now that power is restored.

by Bob McEowen

Electric line crews across Missouri battled cold and long hours to restore power following a devastating ice storm that struck Jan. 30.

Ice is an electric co-op manager's worst nightmare.

The combination of rain and temperatures hovering at the freezing mark spells disaster. As ice forms wires sag and then break. Poles snap like toothpicks. Anchors pull from the ground, toppling entire stretches of power lines.

That's exactly what happened on the morning of Jan. 30 as freezing rain left a 50-mile- wide band of destruction from Kansas City to the Mississippi River. Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Butler, was the first Missouri co-op to see just how severe the storm would prove to be.

"During the first several hours of Wednesday morning we thought we were handling most of it pretty well ourselves," says Jon McClure, manager of the co-op which serves 14,000 members, primarily in Cass, Bates and Henry counties to the south of Kansas City. "But as the day progressed reports kept coming in that places where we had been before were starting to go down again.

"We had one area where we had 3 miles (of line) go down right in a row and then another area where we had a mile go down," McClure says. "We could see there was just no way we were going to keep ahead of it."

Before night fell more than 8,500 of the co-op's members were without power.

As always happens in times like these, McClure turned to his neighbors for help. A call to the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives in Jefferson City activated the co-ops' emergency response procedure. Quickly crews from outside the storm's path packed their tools, called their wives and headed into the fray. Many of those men would not return home for a week.

To the east electric co-ops braced for the worst. They got it.

11 co-ops suffered severe damage and lengthy power outages

Barton County Electric Cooperative
Sac-Osage Electric Cooperative
Osage Valley Electric Cooperative
West Central Electric Cooperative
Central Missouri Electric Cooperative
Farmers' Electric Cooperative
Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative
Howard Electric Cooperative
Boone Electric Cooperative
Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative
Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative

Three systems shorter outages

Co-Mo Electric Cooperative
Consolidated Electric Cooperative
Ralls County Electric Cooperative

"I've been here 40-some years and it's the worst storm we've ever had," says Darrel Rinne, interim manager of West Central Electric, the next co-op to be hit as the storm passed through Lafayette and Johnson counties, knocking out power to 9,000 of the co-op's 12,000 members.

All told, 11 Missouri co-ops suffered major outages. Besides Osage Valley and West Central the storm struck co-ops based in Sedalia, Chillicothe, Kearney, Fayette, Columbia, Palmyra, Lewistown, Lamar and El Dorado Springs. Three other systems, in Mexico, Tipton and New London, had outages which lasted a day or less.

The heroic effort to restore power saw co-op linemen working 16 hour days. Crews from 23 Missouri systems rushed to help. Even co-ops in the storm's path lent a hand once their own power was restored.

In addition, co-ops enlisted the help of independent electrical contractors and right-of-way crews to repair lines and clear fallen trees and brush. Even that was not enough to gain ground as some systems' lines continued to collapse well after the rain stopped.

"We had worked this thing for two days and come Thursday night we lost 40 or 50 poles because the wind picked up," recalls Wayne Hackman, manager of Macon Electric Cooperative, which lost power to nearly 70 percent of its 11,000 members. "That really blew us away. We thought we were headed down the road of recovery and boy, we come in the next morning and we've got lines on the ground."

Despite set-backs, electric co-ops managed to reconstruct systems that had taken years to build. That does not mean these systems returned to their pre-storm condition, though.

Crews from Macon Electric Cooperative, along with linemen from neighboring systems, work to restore more than a mile of lines and poles which collapsed two days after an ice storm struck the co-op.

"You just do what you have to to get power back on and then you go back and finish it up later," says Rinne, who called on his experience as manager, operations superintendent, lineman and brush crewman out in the field guiding visiting crews.

Indeed, even though the power is back on, co-ops have a lot of work yet to do.

"We've got some nasty looking lines," says Hackman, whose co-op office was running on a standby generator two days after the storm. "We've got a whole series of lines where the poles are setting at an angle because an anchor gave way. Somewhere along the line we have to go back and straighten that out.

"Then you've got the whole issue of right of way," he says. "We've cut trees all over the place. We've got to go back and address cleaning that up at some point in time. But that's going to have a pretty low priority."

While repairing the obvious damage from the storm will take months, other effects will be felt for years.

"All of these poles have some kind of stress or ground disturbance that is going to weaken the system," says McClure. "Ten, 15 years from now, you're going to lose the life of that pole that may have lasted longer."

And then there are the financial effects of a major ice storm. All that vital help from neighboring co-ops and contract crews must be paid for. There's also wire and poles, crossarms and hardware.

A co-op lineman salvages hardware from a pole downed by the weight of accumulated ice.

The cost is staggering. Hackman says the Jan. 30 storm cost Macon Electric $750,000. West Central Electric puts the damage at nearly $2 million.

Most of the affected parts of the state have been declared disaster areas by the federal government so co-ops can count on relief money to cover some of their expenses. Still, the storm will have a significant impact on a co-op's financial health.

"It definitely affects the margins for this year," says McClure. "You have to make up that loss before you can allocate any capital credits."

Considering hardship on members, strain on co-op employees, long-term damage to systems and financial losses it's hard to find any silver lining in the clouds which brought the January storm. Still, without exception, co-ops report members responded to the storm with strength and appreciation for their co-ops.

"People were out of power four and five days but even being out that long everybody is thanking us for getting it back on. They now realize how important electricity is to them," says Hackman. "We've got our whole break room full of notes from people and there isn't over two or three that have any negative comments.

"It makes our employees feel good and makes me feel good, too," he says.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives

Rural Missouri
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P.O. Box 1645 • Jefferson City, Mo. 65102

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