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After storms, crews rush to restore power

Hundreds of workers descend on Oklahoma and Missouri to help.

January 20, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

MCALESTER, OKLA. — Ronnie Kennedy, a utility supervisor from Louisiana, watched proudly as his crew reconnected a severed power line in this frost-crusted city.

As thick slabs of ice fell around them, the men in white hardhats kept working. Within minutes, juice was restored to another house. The painstaking process of repairing ice-coated lines and replacing power poles that had snapped under the strain of frozen rain would need to be repeated hundreds of times.

"When you're a lineman, this is what you live for: getting power back to people," said Kennedy, 48, who is part of an emergency team from the Entergy Louisiana power company. "This little town here got hit hard. This is the worst I've seen."

Hundreds of utility workers from as far as Ohio and South Carolina have descended on Oklahoma and Missouri to help untangle a cobweb of frozen power lines in a region where more than 140,000 people were still shivering in the dark Friday.

Hundreds of homes remain under sheets of ice after devastating winter storms that caused at least 65 deaths in nine states, including more than 20 in Oklahoma.

Another snowstorm was to strike late Friday, raising the possibility of an even higher toll unless emergency workers can restore power to hard-hit areas like this country town of 18,000, about 90 miles' drive south of Tulsa.

"It's hell, brother," said Chris Bayles, 26, one of the Louisiana workers.

The out-of-state power crews are disaster-tested veterans who have clambered through the detritus left by tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms. Their task can at times seem thankless -- for inconvenienced people, electricity can never be restored quickly enough -- but the crews are used to that.

"As bad as it is, I'm surprised they have as much power up as they do," said John Hilburn, 33, who watched the crews outside his house, which had a tree leaning against it.

"We can tough it out," said his wife, Paula, 33.

After ice storms like the one in McAlester, power workers must ensure that the entire electrical grid is functioning -- from the transmission lines that carry power to a city to the cables that bring it into homes. All the while, they have to avoid the wet wires that could electrocute them and the weakened power poles that could fall at any moment.

The half-inch-thick ice adds about 500 pounds to the 200 feet of cable between two power poles -- enough weight to kill someone it falls on.

What's more, workers here have to worry about being zapped in neighborhoods that supposedly are without power. Some homeowners who improperly connected generators to their homes have been sending electricity back into the grid, charging downed power lines that are slumped across the streets and lawns.

"The ice is terrible. You can walk in a backyard and get killed without even seeing a thing," said Jim Jones, 55, part of a crew of Westar Energy workers who came to McAlester from Shawnee, Kan., Monday night. "It can be slow going, but before we heat up a piece of primary [electrical line], we have to know where everyone's at."

By early Thursday, power crews had succeeded in lighting up about half of McAlester. Freshly cut wooden power poles lined many streets; alongside them were the old poles, snapped like Popsicle sticks.

But then the weather dealt the workers a setback: Ice melting midday caused the ground to get soggy, and more lines and power poles began to tumble, plunging recently reconnected neighborhoods back into darkness. By late Thursday, more than 13,000 people had no power.

On Friday morning, a 138,000-volt transmission line serving the city succumbed to storm damage. By evening, 11,000 people were in the dark -- and the forecast said the precipitation about to fall on McAlester could be sleet, not snow.

The setbacks were frustrating, some workers said, but typical. "You just hope it doesn't happen, but ... you deal with it," Derek Lewellen, regional manager for the Public Service Co. of Oklahoma.

Also in town this week to lend a hand were hundreds of volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention, who came from as far as Utah to cook meals and run chain saws through fallen trees. The chain saw work was crucial, because if the frozen trees that littered every block weren't cleared, workers could not reach many electrical lines.

"That tree just split right down the middle about 7:30 last Saturday night, and I had one branch go right through to my bedroom," said Walter Gordon, 41, as volunteers placed a tarp on his roof. Nearby, other workers were cutting the century-old post oak into pieces. "Soon, I'll hopefully get my power back, and I'll be OK," he said.

Gerald Peters, the convention's national disaster commander, had driven to McAlester in a motor home and was busy on his cellphone directing dozens of crews. Peters, 72, was not new to disaster: He helped oversee the 13 million hot meals that the group had prepared for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But for the native Oklahoman, this was personal: One place he sent volunteers to was Tahlequah, his hometown. His boat, he presumed, was lost to the frost on Tenkiller Ferry Lake.

"This isn't as big as New Orleans. But for us, there will be work here long after the [electrical] workers are gone," he said. "We're devastated."

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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