8,600 Face Two More Weeks Without Power After Ice Storm

A no-frills office building next to agricultural rice paddies has become the nerve center for efforts to restore power to three of the hardest-hit counties in southern Missouri's worst ice storm in memory.

Here, receptionists at the Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative field phone calls and walk-in visits from some of its 8,600 customers who have been without power for 14 days, and face up to two more weeks of the same.

Down the hall, inside the "war room" of the cooperative that sprang from rural electrification in 1937, the mood is intense.

A Jan. 26-27 ice storm wiped out entire systems for transmitting and distributing electricity across a wide swath of southern Missouri. About 17,000 people remained without electricity Sunday. The high was 100,000. Nearly 35,000 were still without power in Kentucky on Sunday, down from a high of more than 769,000.

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Besides the immediate pain of getting communities back on-line, utility officials in some of Missouri's poorest counties wonder where they'll get the millions of dollars they estimate they'll need to virtually rebuild their entire networks.

"I honestly can't say," said Charles Crawford, Pemiscot-Dunklin's general manager. "We will handle it somehow. We'll have to survive for our members."

Pemiscot-Dunklin, which serves the so-called Missouri Bootheel counties of Pemiscot, Dunklin and New Madrid, was the hardest-hit of five Missouri electric cooperatives affected by the storm. Eighty percent of the cooperative's 1,500 miles of lines and poles were destroyed, Crawford said.

Also left in the dark were southern Missouri customers of St. Louis-based utility giant AmerenUE, and the municipal utilities of various small towns.

As they reconstruct distribution lines and poles, their mother sources of electric transmission are rebuilding their own networks. It's only when the two marry that power can be restored to customers like 80-year-old Marietta Walker, who relies on a gas generator and stove to heat her home.

"I guess I'll make it," she said. "Lord, they forgot about us back here."

Walker lives in one of the nicer homes of impoverished Hayti Heights, a virtual ghost town of unelectrified and abandoned wooden hovels, untended dogs, junked cars, and shanties whose front doors are propped closed with wood stumps.

Walker is old enough to remember the days before rural electrification, when her husband stayed awake stoking a coal or wood stove as the family slept.

On Friday, wrapped in a pale-pink robe and slippers, she took pity on a small stray that let himself in from the cold the night before.

"He'd have frozen unless I left him in," she said.

Back at the electric cooperative, located on a state highway halfway between Hayti and Kennett, utilities managers are directing lineman crews in the field by cell phone, poring over maps and ordering supplies directly from manufacturers. Large trucks pull around the back to unload power poles and heavy equipment.

Tim Davis, Pemiscot-Dunklin's operations manager, got help from Jerry Wellington, on loan from Crawford Electric Cooperative in Bourbon. Davis said he encouraged his peer to jump in and make decisions because the job of coordinating efforts in the field is too big for one person.

"It's kind of fun," Wellington said. "I like a challenge."

In the last few days, Pemiscot-Dunklin has gotten a welcome infusion of more than 700 linemen, along with trucks and equipment, to buttress their own modest staff. Half are from electric cooperatives in Missouri, Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi; the others are out-of-state contract workers released by AmerenUE after its customers got back online.

They start each day with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast briefing at an area dining hall and words to boost their spirits on the progress of their enormous task.

The community knows they're here. A church sign off Interstate 55 says, "God Bless Utility Workers."

On Jan. 27, the region awakened to a light rain that persisted for 2 1/2 days as temperatures hovered at 32 degrees. A 6-inch diameter of ice formed on the lines, and the sheer weight of the ice uprooted poles and anchors and snapped lines, devastating the system.

Crawford, who's been without power himself since the first day, says he still turns on the TV out of habit.

"I've got to laugh about it so I don't cry," he said.

Crawford expects it will take two weeks to restore power to all his customers. But much depends on the transmission provider, Poplar Bluff-based M&A Electric Power Cooperative, which lost 2,400 poles and 180 miles of line.

"This was a massive, massive hit," said John Farris, M&A's chief executive and general manager. "I've been doing this work since 1963, and never seen anything like this. There were 10,000 pounds of ice on each pole. They're not designed for that."

Farris said it will cost $80 million to rebuild its infrastructure, and that customers will pay for it in the end, even if Missouri succeeds in getting federal disaster funds.

Still, some are finding reason to cheer.

Pemiscot-Dunklin outfitted motels in Steele and Marston with generators so they could house their loaned linemen. The popular eatery "Shorty's" in Holcomb got the same in order to cater two hot meals and a bag lunch every day.

The men dine on ribs, fried chicken, country-style cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, and fresh fruit cobbler or cream pies topped with 2-inch meringue.

In this economic downturn, "I was tickled to death" to have the business, owner Ronald Dean "Shorty" Cross said.