by | Apr 17, 2023

Missouri co-ops help their neighbors in Kentucky

Spring returned to Kentucky during the first week of March. Blue skies, warm temperatures and budding trees created a pastoral scene. Daffodils — a sure sign of winter’s end — peeked out from greening grass in countless yards.

For the nearly 100 Missouri lineworkers toiling under the cloudless sky, working an outage in ideal weather was a rare treat. They crossed the Mississippi River to lend a hand to their neighbors in the Bluegrass State following a windstorm of historic proportions that struck on March 3.

Storms rarely engulf an entire state like this one did. The intense storm broke records for low barometric pressure, causing hurricane-strength wind that reached as high as 79 mph. At least three tornadoes were reported to have touched down. Under this onslaught trees toppled, roofs were torn off houses, barns blew down and poles snapped like matchsticks.

When the storm finally blew itself out nearly 300,000 of the state’s electric co-op members were left without power. The commonwealth’s co-ops counted more than 1,000 broken poles. Even more trees — tall pines and stately old oaks — were toppled with many blocking roads and taking power lines down with them.

With all of its 26 electric cooperatives affected, and co-ops in nearby states unable to respond due to their own outages, Kentucky cast wide the request for help. Crews from Missouri answered the call, along with lineworkers from 11 other states. Convoys of trucks beat a path to Kentucky from as far away as Florida and Maryland. A total of 504 additional lineworkers helped restore power over the course of a week.

“The damage from this event is as widespread as any natural disaster I have ever seen in Kentucky co-op history,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “All 24 distribution co-ops and both of our generation and transmission co-ops sustained damage in the windstorm.”

The out-of-state linemen found the locals extremely happy to see them working to restore their power.

“We ourselves get to go on a lot of these storms,” says Warren Electric’s Corey Weaver, who was guiding Laclede Electric’s lineworkers during the storm. “Ice storms, hurricanes and that type of thing. It’s always nice to go out and help other people. But then when it happens at your place it’s kind of an eye-opener to see that help come back to you.”

One crew from Southwest Electric Cooperative discovered just how much they were appreciated when they stopped to refuel their two trucks at a gas station in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“A man came over and said, ‘Let me buy your fuel,’” says Steve Howard, a foreman for Southwest Electric. “I had to argue with him. I said, ‘We get reimbursed, they take care of it.’ I was on $120, and he would have wanted to pay for the service truck too and that would have been another 80 bucks. He was just tickled to death that we were there helping.”

A crew from Consolidated Electric Cooperative was greeted by a Warren Electric member who offered them the use of his all-terrain vehicle to haul their tools and materials to the top of a steep hill.

Near Horse Branch, Kentucky, Southwest Electric’s team had the road blocked while they replaced a pole. A member who was without power for four days shouted encouragement, saying, “You all are doing a great job. Just keep it up. I’m not complaining.” He and his wife left with, “You all stay safe. God bless you.”

Elsewhere a farmer helped pull trucks from pole to pole in the waterlogged soil left by the storm. The co-op lineworkers followed tree trimmers whose efforts could be seen on roads cleared of fallen trees.

The first Missouri crews arrived at Jackson Purchase Energy Cooperative based in Paducah not long after the storm ended. Less devastated than some of the other systems, this co-op had power restored to its 11,000 members left in the dark in a couple of days, allowing the Missourians to shift their aid to Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative Corp., based in Hopkinsville. Here the storm knocked out power to 26,000 members. By Wednesday, March 8, work here was completed and those crews returned home.

Meanwhile a second wave of Missouri crews was sent to hard hit Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corp., Bowling Green, where 30,000 members were without power. It would take another two days to restore service to all members of Warren Electric, wrapping up a week after the outage began.

Those Missouri electric co-ops sending help included: Barry Electric, Cassville; Boone Electric, Columbia; Callaway Electric, Fulton; Central Missouri Electric, Sedalia; Citizens Electric, Perryville; Co-Mo Electric, Tipton; Consolidated Electric, Mexico; Crawford Electric, Bourbon; Cuivre River Electric, Troy; Gascosage Electric, Dixon; Howell-Oregon Electric, West Plains; Laclede Electric, Lebanon; SEMO Electric, Sikeston; Southwest Electric, Bolivar; Three Rivers Electric, Linn; and White River Valley Electric, Branson.

Wherever they worked, the story was the same: Giant trees uprooted and blown into power lines. Wire twisted and tangled in fallen branches. Poles snapped in half or cracked and hanging from the wire. The work started early and often went far into the night under a full moon.

Near Franklin, Kentucky, Laclede Electric’s Corey Honey donned chest waders to drag a fallen line out of a swamp. Nearby his fellow linemen set new poles by a tobacco barn.

Working on Pennyrile’s system, Crawford Electric linemen had to wait for a tree-trimming crew to cut a path through fallen trees to reach downed lines that were a tangled mess.

“A lot of times you will get a tornado and it will cut a strip,” says Steve. “But this affected everything. It found every weak spot there was.”

Along with the spring weather and flowering trees, the Missouri linemen witnessed some incredible scenery, with sandstone bluffs towering above sparkling rivers and fields of green winter wheat.

“You couldn’t have asked for any better conditions than we had there,” says Steve, who has seen his share of storms in his 33 years with the co-op. “I’m getting old enough that I don’t desire going on something like this. I had ‘yes’ spit out of my mouth before I realized what I had done. But I am glad that I went. We ran across a lot of good people who were happy to have us there.”

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