Rural Missouri Magazine
Trial by ice
Missouri electric cooperatives wage a heroic recovery from winter's wrath

by Bob McEowen

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.

It’s being 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.

“We haven’t seen ice storms of this magnatude for quite a while,” says Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s 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 co-op history.

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.

“They were predicting freezing rain all day. It got to be two o’clock and nothing had happened.
“Two hours later it was raining so hard you couldn’t see. It was 31 degrees.
“We 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 . . .
“At one point in time, we were down a road and had a tree crash behind us, another tree crashed in front of us.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

— Glenn “Mitch” McCumber, manager
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 of Ozark’s 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.

“When 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.

“You’d 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 spot.”

Power 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.

Gascosage Electric of Dixon has less than 10,000 members. Nearly 6,000 of them were without power.

“We’re 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.”

Similar 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 and Mansfield’s SeMaNo Electric.

All told, 13 Missouri distribution co-ops and two transmission co-ops were severely impacted by the storm.

“You 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.”

John Greenlee, manager
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 2,600 men.

Coordinating such a monumental recovery is a complex task driven, first and foremost, by the need to keep the men safe.

Osage 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.

“You can’t 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.”

Over 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.

“It’s 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 and Missouri’s 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.

“The majority 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.”

“It’s very hard on a man,” says Wood. “Their fingers crack and bleed from the dryness of the skin.”

With ice 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.

The 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 after 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.

“Our 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 them.’
“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.

“Oh my, 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.”

At Ozark Electric’s Nixa office, one member called in and was quickly moved by the receptionist’s distress over the deluge of outage calls.

“It 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.’”

Jones 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.

“I don’t know these people from Adam. I go and drop my payment off, and that’s 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.”

Throughout 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.

“There 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.”

Jim Broyles, foreman
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.

Long-time cooperative 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.

Frustration reached 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 completed.

“It’s 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.

“This sucker 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.

“The financial 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 says.

“It was massive. It sure was.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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