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18-hour shifts: Utility linemen still have days of repairs ahead
BENTON, Mo. -- In 42 years as a power company lineman, Gary Bickings has lived through a lot of storms.
Just in the past year, the AmerenUE troubleshooter has endured the ice storm of Feb. 11 and the damage caused when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through in September. But the 36-hour winter storm that caked an area from Springfield, Mo., to the East Coast with ice and snow, leaving as many as 100,000 people in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois without power, is the new standard.
"This is the worst I have ever seen," he said.
And that means more 18-hour days until the repairs are complete. Since the storm hit, he's been starting his day at 5:30 a.m. and arriving home in Kelso after 10 p.m. And while people have been patient, he said, the severity of the damage means that many of the 17,000 Ameren customers without power will spend more days in the dark. At the storm's peak, about 35,000 Ameren customers had no power.
On Saturday, Bickings was in Benton helping direct Ameren and contract repair crews in their effort to restore power for the town of 750.
Because of the extensive damage, he said, crews must work from the most powerful lines down to individual connections. About 3,600 power poles must be replaced on Ameren circuits, he said.
Numerous 34,500-volt transmission lines were knocked out. Those lines must be repaired before crews can work on distribution lines and feeder lines. Power is restored to what are called tap lines and, finally, individual connections to homes are made. If crews find a damaged connection to a customer's meter, it adds an obstacle because the customer must pay a licensed electrician for repairs.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Bickings said. "And it can't go back up in a day."
As he watched, Wichita, Kan.-based crews from J.F. Electric cut limbs and dodged chunks of ice falling from the trees to reconnect two homes along U.S. 61.
Six crews led by Travis Horton are staying at a Carbondale, Ill., hotel while they repair storm damage. A typical day begins at 4:30 a.m., he said. The crews rise, eat breakfast and hit the road. At 7:30 p.m., with only a short break for lunch, they end their workday and return to the hotel, arriving about 10 p.m.
At first, reaching the broken lines was difficult due to icy roads. On Saturday, the crews, all members of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, dodged chunks of ice falling from the trees.
The people waiting for power have been patient, Horton said. "They are generally pretty excited to see us."
Ameren is trying to work methodically south, said Jean Mason, the utility's Cape Girardeau manager. Crews will reconnect everyone in a town before moving on, she said.
Stoddard County ice damage
Stuck on Broadway