Ice Outages Happen
We can’t stop extreme weather outages but we can learn from them
Freezing rain predictions in February of this year sent people scurrying about, storing up
During a major outage hundreds or even thousands of co-op members may try to call in at the same time, overwhelming phone systems and employees. Phone call outage reports can help, but many co-ops are also using new automated meter reading systems to pinpoint outage areas.
a little extra food just in case they were stranded at home for a couple of days.
But what ensued would end up testing the mettle of co-op crews in southern Illinois and force members to be resourceful for days on end, much longer than anticipated.
The rain started to fall in the afternoon on Feb. 11, in temperatures common to the season. By 6:30 p.m., scattered outages were being called into staff at Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative in Dongola. It was evident by 11 p.m. that a serious situation was developing. The line crews were dispatched to work the storm throughout the night. By 1 a.m., a call went out asking for help from electric co-ops around the state.
In a short period of time, falling rain and freezing temperatures had coated everything in sight. Trees and lines were laden with half to three-quarters of an inch of ice. Sleet fell on top of that, as much as two to three inches, according to records logged by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The result: By 5 a.m. Feb. 12, 6,400 members were without power. Before long that total became Southern’s entire service area, 11,500 members in Johnson, Alexander, Massac, Union, Pulaski and Pope counties.
“Never in the history of the co-op had we had everything go. We’ve never had it where every single member was without power,” says Jerri Schaefer, Director of Communications for the co-op.
The phones were ringing non-stop at the co-op. Members wanted to know when their power would be restored. But it was impossible for anyone to predict how long it would take.
“We couldn’t tell them,” Schaefer says. “We couldn’t fix our distribution lines (from substations to homes) until the transmission lines (from the power plants) were fixed.”
Electric co-op linemen from across the state and region are always ready to help out other co-ops during an ice storm. You can help keep linemen safe by using an emergency generator properly. Unless you’ve already installed a double throw transfer switch to isolate your generator from the electric grid, it’s safest to simply plug appliances directly into the generator. It’s impractical and potentially deadly to try and supply power to the entire house with a portable generator.
The complaints followed.
“You don’t realize what I’m going through,” was a call that resonated time and again. Members were frustrated. Some had medical conditions. Kids were home from school with little to do. Restaurants and stores were closed. Most members’ homes, including those of co-op employees, were dark and cold.
The devastation to co-op property was monumental. There were 177 broken poles and hundreds of spans of wire down among the 2,100 miles of line in the six-county region. To put it in perspective covering 2,100 miles of line would be like driving to New York and back again.
The co-op’s 44 crewmen, coupled with the 118 additional people from contractor crews and other electric co-ops, worked endlessly.
Some 16,000 calls and 11 days later, electricity had been fully restored and the small-town pleasantries reappeared. Pies and cakes were brought to the co-op as thank-you gestures.
Every crisis is a learning experience. Schaefer says communication has to be a priority during a crisis like this. She worked with the local media to get the word out on progress during the outage and to stop false rumors.
Kevin Bernson, Vice President of Media and Public Relations at Shelby Electric Cooperative, says the co-op in Shelbyville experienced similar challenges in November and December of 2006. That was the first major ice storm recorded since 1979.
A similar amount of ice fell in Shelby Electric’s territory, with the worst damage in the northwest, west and southwest, stretching from Macon to Winona. Of the 9,600 meters, 5,400 were without power. During most ice outages, the first few days progress is normally painfully slow as damage to the systems continues and traveling on icy roads remains difficult and slow. Within the first 48 hours Shelby’s linemen and other crews were only able to restore power to about 1,500 members.
Bernson says employee experience resulted in almost an instinctual response.
“The experience of those at the co-op brought them together as a team. Despite the conditions we were efficient,” he says. But like Schaeffer he notes they learned things from the experience to help them prepare for future weather-related outages.
Though storms were plentiful last winter according to the UIUC, which qualifies the 2007-2008 season as “different from any other in the prior 110 years” – it wasn’t the only season to see nature’s fury.
Two wind storms, the worst on Aug. 5, also brought down poles, lines and trees in the territory served by M.J.M. Electric Cooperative in Carlinville. Crews from the co-ops of Menard, Illinois Rural, Egyptian, Monroe, Tri-County and Adams responded to help restore power knocked out by gusting 70 mph winds.
According to Bronson Borowiak, Member Services Director, around 4,000 members were initially without power. The last of damage to the system was repaired by the morning of Aug. 9.
Of the lessons learned there, Borowiak said the co-op has taken a much more aggressive stance in tree trimming. He said proper clearance is the key to fewer outages.
“If winds come through, tree limbs aren’t as likely to fall on lines.”
Things you need to know to better survive outages
What caused the Feb. 11-12 storm?
The winter of 2007-2008 was “unique” according to the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with a large number of warm-season type storms intermixed with a large number of winter storms. One such result of that pattern was the Feb. 11-12 ice storm.
The report suggests that by Feb. 11, Arctic air extended south to the Gulf of Mexico, and a low-pressure system was developing over the north central Rockies. The low moved in an Alberta Clipper track southeastward to Kentucky. This cyclone track, as recorded, lead to the major ice storm across southern Missouri and Illinois. It brought very high winds and thick ice layers in the farthest regions of the state.
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