Tens of thousands still without power

Thursday, January 29, 2009
ELIZABETH DODD ~ edodd@semissourian.com
Darrell Liggett with Nelson Tree Service removes branches from a downed powerline Wednesday in a Cape Girardeau neighborhood off South Sprigg Street.

Thousands of Southeast Missouri residents will struggle to keep warm again today as the second major ice storm in two years has crippled parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois, leaving more than 80,000 powerless Wednesday.

The storm began Monday evening with sleet in the Cape Girardeau area and freezing rain to the south. After a Tuesday afternoon respite, a stronger mass of freezing rain moved into the area, changing to snow overnight. Some areas in Cape Girardeau and Perry counties got significant amounts of snow, up to 7 inches. But ice was the story to the south.

Unlike last year when the ice storm ravaged Jackson and parts of northern Cape Girardeau County, this one was wider in scope, punishing communities from Benton to the Bootheel. Forecasters had predicted the storm could be the worst in two decades. It could certainly be argued: The massive system affected multiple states from Oklahoma to Maine. Trees and utility poles buckled and snapped, covering roads throughout the region.

Officials said power may not be restored for five days or more. They urged those without power to protect their health, pets, homes and businesses. Restoring power will not be an easy task.

"Along one highway, we have 15 electric poles in a row all on the ground," said Jerri Schaefer, director of communications for the Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative.

As of 9 p.m. Wednesday, the Ozark Border Electric Cooperative in Poplar Bluff reported 15,000 to 20,000 of its 37,000 customers were without power, and the Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative reported 7,500 customers affected.

Most of Sikeston's 9,000 customers served by the Board of Municipal Utilities were without power. The city enacted a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., to continue indefinitely for "the safety and security of the city," according to a news release sent by the Department of Public Safety. By 9 p.m., 85 to 90 percent of Sikeston still did not have power. All public safety employees are working 12-hour shifts, according to Public Safety Capt. Ken Dicus.

The main transmission loop around the city of Sikeston was damaged Tuesday night, said Ed Throop, general manager of the utility board.

More than 8,000 Ameren customers were without power in Scott County. In Cape Girardeau County, nearly 800 were powerless by nightfall. Overall, more than 41,000 Ameren customers lacked electricity in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois.

SEMO Electric Cooperative had about 11,000 customers over a six-county region without electricity, including about 25 percent of its Cape Girardeau County customers, 60 percent of Scott County customers and 40 percent of Stoddard County customers, said Glen Cantrell, spokesman for SEMO Electric.

Most utilities were warning customers to expect to be without power for up to five days.

To help residents cope with the outages, warming centers were opened throughout the region; by late afternoon, 11 overnight shelters were operating. Hundreds of schools and businesses closed either because of a lack of power or impassable roads. Gov. Jay Nixon mobilized the Missouri National Guard to help clear up the mess.

An extra 25 Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers and a helicopter were dispatched for rescue and recovery efforts in Scott, Mississippi and Pemiscot counties, the State Emergency Management Agency said in its evening situation report.

Pemiscot County reported a total power loss, with the loss of water service and a need for generators as the biggest concern. New Madrid County reported a need for generators and food and Butler County reported that 80 percent of residents lacked power and that the county needed assistance sheltering animals.

Several buildings were damaged throughout the area as awnings fell and rooftops collapsed. In Scott City, a minor train derailment was reported with no injuries.

In Cape Girardeau County, no roads were closed by downed trees or electric lines, but crews were having a tough time. They're "getting around as best as they can, and there are lot of people, private individuals, trying to help out," said Cape Girardeau County Commissioner Paul Koeper. "... We have several hundred miles of road to clear, and we're doing everything we can. This ice is tough."

Bridget DiCosmo, Rudi Keller, Peg McNichol and Bob Miller of the Southeast Missourian contributed to this report.

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