Electric cooperative crews, mutual aid workers and contractors are making steady progress this week restoring electricity after deadly tornadoes swept through parts of the South and Midwest over the weekend.
Damage to distribution and transmission lines, poles and support structures in some areas is extensive, and several co-op-served communities will face months of rebuilding and recovery from the massive tornadoes and powerful winds that ravaged their communities.
More than 100,000 co-op-served meters were out of service in the immediate aftermath of the storms, but local crews and contractors began assessing damage and making repairs as soon as winds subsided enough for them to work safely.
In hard-hit Kentucky, co-ops faced devastation in the communities they serve as they worked to restore power “surrounded by debris, destruction and an uncertain future for the western Kentucky communities they call home,” the Kentucky Electric Cooperatives said in a statement.
“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of life, homes, businesses and livelihoods in our communities,” said Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives and United Utility Supply Cooperative.
At least 74 people have died in Kentucky as a result of the tornadoes, state officials said Tuesday.
“The co-op mission is to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve, and co-op crews are doing what they can to try to help our members recover from this disaster,” Perry said. “I want to personally thank the crews for their incredible response within such a short time.”
More than 500 workers were helping to restore power in western Kentucky. Crews from more than 20 co-ops in several states were assisting line technicians at West Kentucky RECC, Warren RECC, Gibson EMC and Pennyrile Electric, the statewide association said.
More than 80,000 co-op consumer-members in the state lost power Saturday. By Tuesday afternoon, that number had dropped to about 5,600. However, the pace of restoration is likely to slow as co-op crews deal with the most heavily damaged areas, the statewide association said.
Kentucky co-op employees were among those who suffered severe damage to their homes. The statewide association has created the nonprofit Kentucky Rural Electric Disaster Fund to help them and the communities they serve.
“Time and time again, Kentucky electric cooperative employees put their personal lives and families on the side to address the needs of their communities and the wider co-op community,” Perry said.
Louisville-based United Utility Supply Cooperative delivered multiple truckloads of materials and supplies to affected co-ops, deploying office staff to join the co-op’s truck drivers and deliver extra loads as needed, said Joe Arnold, vice president of strategic communications for the statewide association.
“Aware of the forecasts for severe weather on Friday night, UUS worked with its transformer vendor, ERMCO, to secure an extra supply of transformers to be able to deliver them where they were most needed after the storms,” Arnold said. “Despite supply chain concerns, UUS has been able to deliver needed supplies to co-ops.”
In Tennessee, co-ops have worked to reduce outages from 20,000 to less than 4,000, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association said in a press release Tuesday.
Neighboring co-ops were working to help Gibson Electric Membership Corp. restore power to hard-hit areas of northwest Tennessee and southwest Kentucky. As of Tuesday, the co-op reported that it had about 1,000 members without electricty, down from about 1,700 the night before. However, the co-op was continuing to receive new outage reports even as it was restoring service.
“Even with all of Gibson EMC’s lineworkers and lineworkers from neighboring utilities, repairing the monumental damage is a painfully slow process,” said Dan Rodamaker, president and CEO of Gibson EMC and Gibson Connect, the co-op’s broadband subsidiary. “We know how very difficult a lengthy outage is for our members and we are pushing hard to restore electric and internet service as quickly as we safely can.”
It may take several more days to restore power to all of Tennessee’s co-op members, the statewide association said.
“The images coming out of northwest Tennessee and southwest Kentucky are truly remarkable,” said David Callis, executive vice president and general manager for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Even in the face of tragedy, it is encouraging to see how many rush to provide assistance when neighbors need help.”
In Arkansas, 8,000 co-op members were out of power initially, but that number had plummeted to about 50 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the outage map on the website of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.
Co-op crews also restored service to several thousand co-op meters in Mississippi and Illinois over the weekend, and power had been completely restored by Tuesday.
In Missouri, crews worked Monday to repair a high-voltage transmission line connecting two power plants owned by Springfield-based Associated Electric Cooperative to the grid. The G&T lost 17 steel structures, and officials have said long-term repairs will be needed on the line.
“Missouri crews restored service to about 15,000 co-op served meters across the state over the weekend,” said Jim McCarty, a spokesman for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. As of Tuesday afternoon, the statewide association’s outage map showed just 84 co-op members without power.
Erin Kelly and Derrill Holly are staff writers for NRECA.