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Rural Missouri Magazine

Katrina's Fury
Missouri linemen brave the aftermath
to return power to Mississippi

by Jarrett Medlin

They ride into darkness. Fifteen hours from Missouri to the Mississippi coast. Some sleep in trucks along the way, parked amidst looters and the irritable. Others ride on fumes, relieved just to make the trip down.

John R. Carter, a lineman from Ozark Border Electric Cooperative in Poplar Bluff, untangles line from a fallen pole in downtown Biloxi, Miss. Nearly 300 Missouri linemen traveled to the Gulf Coast to help restore power after Hurricane Katrina..

They come here the week before Labor Day, Aug. 29 and 30, leaving the comfort of their families and homes. Nothing — the headlines, the 24-hour news, the wild rumors — no, nothing could possibly prepare them for what they’re about to experience.

When they arrive this is what they see: a land ravaged by wind and water. People wait for countless hours in 100-degree heat for a tank of gas or a bag of ice. The stench of the dead fills the air. Family photos, tattered teddy bears and deceased pets lie on streets in front of homes that are now merely piles of lumber and memories. This can’t possibly be America. The scene more resembles a war zone or a third-world country.

Why 296 Missouri linemen from 38 electric co-ops would voluntarily subject themselves to such a dire situation is hard to comprehend. Naturally, they wanted to help their fellow man. Certainly, the overtime provided an added incentive. Some thought it would be like last year’s hurricane: drive down, sleep in an air-conditioned motel room each night, work for a week and go home. Honestly, no one really fathomed the full impact of Katrina.

Mississippi residents walk past downed lines and fallen trees to get water.

When the howling 175-mph winds and slanting rain had passed, 100 percent of meters at Singing River and Coast electric power associations in southern Mississippi had stopped spinning. More than 33,000 poles lay on the ground like a box of spilled toothpicks. Power lines were strewn about like knots of tangled fishing line. Full power in Mississippi was projected to be months away, and the heat was already growing unbearable.

As the men begin their first day of a grueling two-week shift in Mississippi, they realize this will be unlike any other job. They will face conditions they’ve only read about: no air conditioning, no toilets, no phone, no showers. The fortunate ones bathe in abandoned swimming pools or with garden hoses borrowed from generous locals. Limited amounts of water, gas and food — necessities most citizens wait hours for — are provided by the local co-ops when necessary. As one lineman describes it, “It’s like war — take rations, get fuel.”

Farmers’ Electric lineman Blaine Barnett takes a break from clearing debris on a road in rural Mississippi. The linemen worked from sunrise to sunset in 100-degree heat.

They rise at 4:30 a.m. and dress in jeans and work shirts. After a quick breakfast at the local co-op building, they drive to their assigned locations. For the remainder of the day, the men toil in the exhausting heat and humidity. They clear piles of brush and debris that block roads and tangle power lines. They remove broken poles and set new ones before climbing into the bucket truck and stringing lines. After they’ve finished a pole, they move to the next one and repeat the process. If three men work together, replacing a three-phase pole might take an hour in ideal conditions. Again, more than 33,000 need repaired, often in areas covered with brush and debris, and linemen can see downed poles stretching beyond sight in some places.

Weary citizens often stop to talk to the men during the day. Some thank them for their hard work and ask how long it will take until the power returns. Others ask for water or food. If they can spare it, the men occasionally hand out bottles of water or small snacks. Not until the sun dips below the horizon, 15 hours after they began, do the men pack up their gear and start toward the hotels.

Onlookers survey what remains of the First Baptist Church of Gulfport.

By the end of the first night, the linemen begin to grasp their new reality. “You talk about hell,” says Callaway Electric lineman Clint Smith. “I believe I’ve seen it.”

He stands on the dark balcony of the second floor at the Best Western in Gautier, Miss. The balcony overlooks the town’s main road, which is eerily dark from the lack of streetlights or business signs. Inside, the room feels like a sauna. Men strip to boxers and prop their doors open through the night, hoping to catch a cool breeze. Before bed, they brush their teeth and shave by the glow of a flashlight. In the parking lot, several large trucks purr incessantly, adding to the men’s misery.

“No one can sleep around here,” Clint explains. Between the heat, the noise and the anxiety, few people will get even four hours of sleep each night. Just as a lineman drifts to sleep, others begin to stir and it’s time to get up and start another day. A few days of this, joined with no showers and growing exhaustion, is enough to drive a man to insanity.

Somehow, the men remain in good spirits. They see the Mississippi co-op workers and citizens and they count their blessings. At least they have a home and family to return to in several weeks. Those from Mississippi are not so fortunate. At Coast Electric, 70 of 210 employees lost their homes and 100 more employees’ houses are damaged.

Dave Dickmeyer, a Cuivre River Electric Cooperative lineman, holds a downed line while others prepare to raise it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the 57 years that I’ve lived on the coast,” says Ace Necaise, district manager for Singing River’s office in Gautier. “This storm makes Hurricane Ivan look like a pop-up thunder shower.”

Several days earlier, the hurricane claimed the life of Ace’s father and the home of Singing River General Manager Lee Hedgegaard. You would never know it though from their professional demeanor and courageous leadership. “We’re glad to have the help,” Lee says, with a weak smile. “We’re in dire straits.”

Still, some Mississippi natives can’t help but express their frustration. A block from Singing River meter man Glen Foreman’s house, his father’s shrimp boat, the Lucy K, has come to rest in the middle of the road. Glen recalls riding the boat even when he was a child. “God must hate us,” he says. “We’re getting a little long in the tooth to start over again.”

Glen Foreman, a meter man for Singing River Electric Power Association in Gautier, Miss., examines his father’s shrimp boat, which now rests on his street.

Stories of loss and heartache are not uncommon in this area of the country. One young man, a 25-year-old fireman named Jason Keesler, walks the beach of Gulfport and sees images that will haunt him for a lifetime. “A man ain’t supposed to see things like this,” he says with a distant look, tears welling up in his eyes. “I became a fireman because I wanted to help people. But in a situation like this, there’s nothing you can do.”

The day before, Jason pulled 168 bodies from a morgue. Among the dead were four girls the same age as his daughter. Jason hasn’t eaten since because the horrific smell of decaying bodies fills his nostrils every time he sees food.

Nearby stands the remains of the First Baptist Church of Gulfport. Jason remembers riding his bike to that church every Sunday with his 2-year-old daughter. “We lived in this beautiful, ‘Leave It to Beaver’ type of neighborhood,” he says. Now, all of his remaining possessions fit in a Rubbermaid container. Jason already sent his wife and daughter away to wait for him, he explains. “I plan to work until late October. Then, I’m moving to North Carolina.”

A lineman uses the glow of a flashlight to prepare for bed in his hotel room at the Best Western in Gautier, Miss. The lack of air conditioning made sleeping nearly impossible during the first several nights.

Day by day, citizens and linemen move forward. They do so because looking back is too hard.

Slowly, conditions begin to improve. Running water and electricity in hotel rooms make working conditions far more bearable for the linemen. Lights again start to shine in sections of the Mississippi landscape. Never before has the warm glow of a streetlight or the soft hum of an air conditioner felt so good.

After two excruciating weeks, a new wave of linemen relieves the original 151 from Missouri. The men shake hands with the Mississippi linemen they have come to know so well, wish them the best and start the long trip home.

“I felt guilty because I was returning home, but they couldn’t,” says Chad Wickins, a lineman at Howell-Oregon Electric.

On Sept. 21, three weeks after the hurricane, virtually everyone in Mississippi capable of receiving power had it (compared to 64 percent without electricity at the storm’s peak). State officials had expected it to take twice as long to completely restore power, but the linemen’s hard work paid off early.

Chris Mundle, a Ralls County Electric lineman who still keeps in touch with the Mississippi workers, reflected on his time in the South. “I can’t say I enjoyed the experience,” he says, “but I sure am glad that I was able to help.”

 

For more Hurriane Katrina coverage, visit www.amec.coop.

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