Rural Missouri Magazine

Winter's wrath
Arctic blast leaves 64,000 co-op members in the dark from Branson to the Bootheel

by Jim McCarty

Miles of leaning and downed poles like these Ozark Border lines near Qulin formed an iconic image of the ice storm’s aftermath. Linemen who worked repairs in the Gulf States said the destruction rivaled damage caused by hurricanes.

Electricity: You take it for granted. You flip the switch and the light comes on. But then an outage occurs and the light doesn’t respond to the switch. Creatures of habit, we continue to flip the switch knowing nothing will happen.

That was the experience for 64,000 rural Missourians who suffered through one of the most damaging acts of nature ever to strike the state.

The ice storm that hit in waves beginning Jan. 26 affected fewer people than previous outages.

But in terms of destruction, this one takes the cake. With damage estimates exceeding $144 million, broken poles topping 17,000 and the length of the outage — more than three weeks — setting new records, the January 2009 ice storm will go down in history as the worst ever for the state’s electric cooperatives.

From Branson to the Bootheel, five cooperatives saw significant destruction with as much as 4 inches of ice forming on lines. The heavy weight of ice, estimated at 10,000 pounds per span, snapped poles, caused wire to sag and toppled trees into power lines.

Worse, this storm brought down large portions of the transmission grid owned by M&A Electric Power Co-op.

So many lines were down for M&A, which supplies power to four southeast Missouri electric cooperatives, that dispatchers ran out of the yellow magnets used to show open breakers on a map of its lines. M&A lost 39 of its 75 substations and was faced with replacing 2,400 poles.

The shattered remains of this transmission line show the severity of the storm.

The H structures that hold up its high-voltage lines looked like a crop duster had flown down the middle, taking out crossarms, braces and the tops of poles. In the flat Bootheel, toppled power lines could be seen all the way to the horizon.

“This was our Katrina,” Rob Land told the board of directors at the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. Land, who coordinates finding help for electric co-ops in harm’s way, was practically on his hands and knees that day, begging for another eight bucket trucks and men to meet a request from hard-hit SEMO Electric.

Land and his staff convinced cooperatives across Missouri and from Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi to send crews to the Bootheel and the south-central Ozarks. When that wasn’t enough, they worked with Ameren UE to retain contract linemen released by the investor-owned utility.

In all, more than 3,000 men and their equipment came to the aid of the systems involved. Together, they accomplished the daunting task of replacing in weeks what it took 75 years to build.

Here’s a co-op by co-op look at what it took to complete the restoration effort, which ended Feb. 18.

White River Valley Electric, Branson

At the peak of the storm, White River Valley had around 7,400 outages. The first of the five cooperatives to restore power, White River Valley saw all members back on in six days.

“Number-wise, it’s not the biggest outage we have had,” says Jeff Pardeck, manager of member services. “But I don’t recall seeing that much ice in the 19-plus years I’ve worked here.”

Employees of Ozark Border Electric fielded calls from members around the clock. Left:

With plenty of advance warning of the storm from the National Weather Service, the cooperative had all of its employees on standby.

“We were prepared, waiting for it to happen, but we thought it would happen on Monday, Jan. 26,” Pardeck says. “We had crews that hung around all night, but nothing happened.”

Sleet and ice fell, but the lines initially stood the strain. The next morning, there were only scattered outages across the system.

Then came Round 2. The first reports of outages came in around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 27, and steadily built throughout the day.

Crews, aided by 55 contractors, made great progress until about Thursday when ice started melting. As the ice fell off, trees snapped into lines, and the lines themselves, free from the heavy weight, began galloping.

“There was one 24-hour period where literally the numbers never changed,” Pardeck recalled. “You would get a line back up and you would leave and 30 minutes later you would have that same line go down.”

Ultimately, the hard work gained the upper hand, temperatures moderated and the power was restored. Looking back, Pardeck saw many good deeds. “The thing that sticks out the most, it was amazing how many members would bring the linemen food or something to drink or just try to make the situation more pleasant.”

Howell-Oregon Electric, West Plains

Employees of Howell-Oregon thought the cooperative would dodge the bullet. Early on, only sleet fell across the system, knocking out power to around 300 members, nothing the co-op’s crews couldn’t handle.

Glen Ward, a lineman for Ozark Border Electric Cooperative, works to clear icy limbs from a line west of Dexter.

“I think it was around 3 o’clock on Tuesday, the temperature warmed up to 29 degrees and the sleet changed to freezing rain,” says Dan Singletary, manager. “We stood in the dispatch room and for the next two and a half hours, we watched feeders just start clicking off on our system. All we needed was a few more hours and we would have come out of this OK.”

Instead, heavy ice blanketed the system. “We had two things happening,” Singletary says. “We had ice loading. When it got to an inch or bigger, that’s when things started going down. The system did really well up to that point.

“The other thing, we had trees fall that were located out of our right of way. Just the weight of ice on them caused them to come crashing down on the power lines.”
Like all of Missouri’s electric co-ops, Howell-Oregon has an emergency plan in place. Singletary says the cooperative’s plan worked well.

“I got my linemen in and we started making plans before it hit,” he says. “I told them we are planning for 20 poles to go down and we are planning for 2,000 poles to go down. So we were arranging for crews and material before the storm even hit us.”

Even spouses were brought into the effort, with the manager’s wife cooking for linemen several times. “We had all sorts of volunteers,” Singletary says. “It was a true community effort.”

Crews worked late into the night on Saturday, Feb. 7, and the cooperative managed to reenergize all of its members the next day.

SEMO Electric, Sikeston

A lineman from Barton County Electric Co-op works from a bucket truck to repair damage to this line owned by Ozark Border Electric.

With so many miles of line on the ground, SEMO Electric Cooperative’s Manager of Communications Glen Cantrell likened the effort to building a new power line from St. Louis to Memphis — in two weeks.

The cooperative seemed to have turned a corner on Feb. 10 when it saw outages dip from a high of 11,000 to below 700. Then powerful winds blew into the area.

With gusts up to 60 mph pounding the service area, SEMO’s staff watched outage totals bounce all over the place. Crews would energize a line, only to see another go down in a day of chasing their tails.

The soft, sandy soil of the area liquefied under the double burden of melted ice and rain. Poles recently replaced once again toppled to the ground. In some areas, poles that withstood the burden of ice toppled into the mud due to the wind.

Jerry Dockins, a 24-year veteran of the co-op, was amazed at the destruction he saw. “I thought the ice storm of 2008 was the worst one I would ever see. 2008 was a piece of cake compared to this one.

“I talked to an old man who is 91 years old and he was born and raised at Kewanee. He said he has never in his life seen anything as bad as this ice storm. He would know.”

To repair its 5,000 broken poles, the cooperative enlisted the help of more than 850 additional linemen. Power was restored to all members on Monday, Feb. 16. However, work on agricultural loads will continue.

Ozark Border Electric, Poplar Bluff

As the ice began to melt, mud became the enemy. Only tracked vehicles could move across the muddy fields to repair the downed lines.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Ozark Border Manager Stanley Estes, who has worked for the cooperative for 32 years. “It is by far the worst. We’ve got 170 of these Pike linemen who work a lot of hurricanes. The co-op linemen, they say the same thing. This damage is as bad as you see in a hurricane if not worse.”

For emphasis, Estes points to the 3,000 poles the co-op lost. That compares to 1,000 replaced by Dixie Electric, a Louisiana co-op helped by Ozark Border after Hurricane Katrina.

At the peak of the storm, more than 28,000 here were without power. Employees, most without power themselves, worked around the clock for the first few days in order to get ahead of the outages. One room was devoted to a bank of phones, and office staff worked in shifts to handle the thousands of outage calls.

On Feb. 11, outages were under 1,000. Then powerful winds tore through the service area. Poles previously replaced leaned or fell down in the waterlogged soil. Three substations and five feeder lines went down.

While the new problems were quickly repaired, crews lost two days. Power was finally restored on Tuesday, Feb. 17.

Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric, Hayti

A weary Tim Davis, operations manager for Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative, directed more than 1,000 line workers sent to help restore power.

By far the worst damage was in the two Bootheel counties served by Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric. When roads were cleared enough for an assessment, Manager Charles Crawford found 90 percent of the system on the ground and hardly a meter on.

Those without power included all of the cooperative’s employees and the cooperative’s office.

Two weeks later, only three of the cooperative’s substations had power to them due to the massive amount of damage done to the transmission lines. Service had been returned to 2,000 members, but each one came at great difficulty with trucks drug through flooded rice fields.

Broken poles are expected to total more than 9,000. And the 1,000 additional crew members marks the largest mobilization of men and equipment sent to a Missouri electric co-op.

To house this army, the cooperative turned to the University of Missouri Delta Center and the New Madrid Power Plant.

Crawford, a 26-year veteran of the cooperative, says the destruction done to the Pemiscot-Dunklin system is the worst he has ever seen. “It’s just un-real,” he says.

Poles came uprooted. Poles that were new broke. Poles that could not hold the weight of the ice broke. Lines came down. This was a hundred year storm.”

He called the effort to restore power “miraculous.” After three-weeks of all-out effort, the cooperative saw power restored to members on Feb. 18.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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