Southwest, Laclede, Co-Mo, Gascoage and Intercounty cooperatives are among those from the greater Lake of the Ozarks region who joined other Missouri electric crews in traveling to Florida and Georgia to help with restoration efforts.

Linemen from the Lake of the Ozarks region have returned from Florida where they have been helping restore power for thousands of people of the millions impacted by Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

Carrying tools through waist-deep water while keeping an eye out for alligators, these linemen worked as much as 16 hours a day repairing broken poles and wire damaged by powerful winds and falling trees, according to a press release from Southwest Electric Cooperative, which includes parts of Camden County.

Southwest, Laclede, Co-Mo, Gascoage and Intercounty cooperatives are among those from the greater Lake of the Ozarks region who joined other Missouri electric crews in traveling to Florida and Georgia to help with restoration efforts.

The crews from Missouri which consisted of 133 linemen from 22 systems left on Tuesday, Sept. 12. They returned on Tuesday, Sept. 19. The crews were split between Flint Energies of Reynolds, Ga., GreyStone Power of Douglasville, Ga. and SECO Energy of Sumterville, Fla.

Southwest Electric Cooperative (SWEC) had 12 linemen and six trucks go to SECO Energy in Sumterville, Fla. This group consisted of Mark Simmons, Tory Hurt, James Callaway, Ben Gerke, Jarrod Campbell, Ryan Swanigan, Chris Anderson, Baylie Jones, Trent Coffey, Tim Marsolf, TJ Sawyer and Tim Kroese.

"When we first got there it wasn't really what I was expecting," said Ben Gerke, foreman at SWEC's J7 office in Camden County. "It didn't really appear to be complete devastation, it was just so widespread we knew it was going to take a while to get everyone back on."

Damage within the central Florida electric cooperative was described as “unprecedented,” according to a press release from SWEC.

Co-Mo also sent four crews consisting of 12 men to SECO Energy, located northwest of Orlando. This group included Shane Anderson, Jerry Vanderpool, Mike Dittmer, Duston Twenter, Nathan Graham, Grant Petree, Andy Roselius, Justin Martin, Craig Hutchison, Clay Becker, Glenn Baquet and Seth Verhoff.

Missouri took part in daily conference calls among electric cooperatives that were expected to need help and those that should be out of harm’s way. Offers of assistance came from electric cooperatives as far away as New Hampshire, Vermont and South Dakota.

In anticipation of the hurricane, the Missouri crews were originally committed to two cooperatives in South Carolina - Berkeley and Palmetto electric cooperatives. However, Irma’s westward shift focused the pre-storm preparation to Georgia and Florida, where millions of people were without electricity.

SECO Energy is one of the nation’s largest distribution cooperatives.

SECO’s infrastructure suffered significant damage as Hurricane Irma traveled directly through its service territory with winds that ranged from a Category 1 to a Category 3 hurricane. Power outages began Sunday evening, Sept. 10, as Irma’s tropical-storm-force winds entered central Florida, according to the SWEC.

Members continued to lose power throughout Sunday night and Monday morning when winds increased to hurricane-force speeds. When winds subsided, more than half of SECO’s system was down and more than half of the cooperative’s nearly 200,000 members were without power.

Of their 200,000 accounts, more than 130,000 were left without power after Hurricane Irma, according to a press release from Co-Mo.

Restoration began on Monday, Sept. 11, at noon. More than 1,200 linemen and tree trimmers were deployed in full force throughout the system over the next six days to restore power.

According to the Co-Mo press release, their linemen stayed in a hotel about 30 minutes from the Cooperative office. A bus would pick them up each morning at 5:30 a.m. to begin work. They wouldn’t return until after 10 p.m. each night. 

SWEC linemen Jarrod Campbell said, "Once we got started clearing trees off the lines and repairing broken wires, we were able to cover a lot of ground kind of quickly because we didn't have to replace as many poles as we would have if a storm like that happened here. It was a different kind of soil than the rocks and hills we have in Camden County."

This was the first disaster restoration trip for Tim Kroese, apprentice lineman with SWEC.

"I was so impressed with how many people came together and helped out. Sometimes it feels like there is a lot of negative stuff in this world. This proved to me there are so many good people out there,” he said.

The linemen were part of the largest mobilization of mutual assistance in the history of the rural electric program. More than 1.2 million electric cooperative members were without power following the hurricane.

At the end of the day on Sunday, Sept. 17, SECO’s system was more than 99.9 percent restored. A few members could not receive power due to high water.

Building on lessons learned from providing assistance during previous hurricanes, a tanker truck from Central Electric Power Cooperative accompanied the Florida-bound crews in case fuel was in short supply. Most of the Missouri electric cooperatives sent digger-derrick trucks and bucket trucks to be prepared for anything they might find.

Missouri’s electric cooperatives are no strangers to helping out in the hurricane zones. Show-Me State linemen worked their first hurricane in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast. In the years that followed, Missouri crews, out of harm’s way, have become a common sight wherever the hurricane zone happened to be.

Electric co-ops in Louisiana and Mississippi have returned the favor, helping Missouri electric cooperatives restore power after the ice storms of 2007 and 2009.

James Ashworth, CEO/general manager of SWEC commented, "If there is a positive that comes from storms that leave so much devastation I think it's how people come together and help each other. I've seen time after time how electric cooperatives band together and do whatever it takes to help each other when we need it most."

"During those times in the past when we needed help it was hard to put into words how wonderful it was to have so many people come to our rescue. This was an opportunity for us to return the favor. I'm proud of our employees for stepping up and helping."

Crews from the following Missouri cooperatives also helped restore power in the path of Hurricane Irma:

Barton County Electric Cooperative, Lamar; Black River Electric Cooperative, Fredericktown; Boone Electric Cooperative, Columbia; Callaway Electric Cooperative, Fulton; Citizens Electric Cooperative, Perryville; Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, Tipton; Consolidated Electric Cooperative, Mexico; Crawford Electric Cooperative, Bourbon; Cuivre River Electric Cooperative, Troy; Gascosage Electric Cooperative, Dixon; Grundy Electric Cooperative, Trenton; Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative, West Plains; Intercounty Electric Cooperative, Licking; Laclede Electric Cooperative, Lebanon; Macon Electric Cooperative, Macon; North Central Missouri Electric Cooperative, Milan Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, Butler; Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative, Kearney; Ralls County Electric Cooperative, New London; Sac-Osage Electric Cooperative, El Dorado Springs; SEMO Electric Cooperative, Sikeston; Southwest Electric Cooperative, Bolivar; Tri-County Electric Cooperative, Lancaster; United Electric Cooperative, Maryville; Webster Electric Cooperative, Marshfield; West Central Electric Cooperative, Higginsville.