Area linemen join mission to restore power to homes

For the last two weeks, Kansas electrical linemen from this area have gone to the aid of fellow linemen in Oklahoma and Arkansas where lines were devastated by the massive Christmas ice storm.

There may be financial gain for them as they often working 16-hour days with overtime pay. But, more than that, there’s a strong feeling of brotherhood. They know the linemen from Oklahoma and Arkansas will be there for them, too, if Kansas has disaster.

It’s happened before.

“There’s never any problem getting volunteers to go,” said Robert Reece, general manager for Flint Hills Electric Cooperative at Council Grove. “They appreciate this in Oklahoma, and when we need help on this end, we appreciate it.”

Flint Hills serves customers in 10 counties: Morris, Marion, Chase, Dickinson, Geary, Harvey, McPherson, Wabaunsee, Lyon and Riley.

David Schneider, area agent for Kansas Power and Light, who trouble-shoots and cares for KPL lines in all of northern Marion County except for Ramona, said the linemen often risked life and limb in precarious icy conditions.

Schneider, who also is mayor of Lincolnville, just returned from a week working with Oklahoma Gas and Electric at Paul’s Valley.

“There was real comradery,” Schneider said. “We helped each other, stuck together, watched each other’s backs. They were here helping us during the Haysville tornado.

“There were three fatalities while I was down there, all contractors, from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas,” he added. “We’re pretty strict about safety, but they got some lines that were energized when they weren’t supposed to be, electrocuted them.”

Schneider said there were also accidents, such as a smashed thumb in a hydraulic press and a crushed hand caught when dumping wood chips.

“They had three inches of ice down there,” he said. “The ground was very slippery to stand on, and we worked up and down slick streets. You put the outriggers down on a bucket truck, and they’d stabilize. One truck from Wichita did upset because the ground was wet underneath, and the outriggers sank in.

“They had 170,000 OGE people out of lights at once, but there were no big cities. We went to all smaller towns, from Paul’s Valley on over near Fort Smith, Ark. They were talking about 2,000 poles down, lots of trees down, the wires with them.”

Schneider, who has been a lineman 38 years, said he also has helped out with damage twice this year in Kansas City, in El Dorado, in Salina, “wherever they need me.”

This time he went with Jack Wickersham from Abilene, Bob Ward from Bennington, and Kevin Behm from Salina.

Reece said the number of trees in the two states greatly compounded the amount of damage. The electric cooperatives have statewide offices with one state requesting another to send crews when there is a problem.

Flint Hills sent four crewmen at a time to Kiamichi Electric Cooperative in Wilburton, Okla.

Reece said Friday that Jim Volland, Kevin Burnett and Kerry Zimmerman from Council Grove, and Evan McCreiqth from Junction City were expected home.

Leaving to relieve them were Paul Coley from Council Grove, Bobby Kamm, Junction City, J.J. Pitts, Hillsboro, and Pat Emerson, Hillsboro.

Reece said: “Kiamichi is telling us they have another week to 10 days to go, a massive cleanup, and they still have a lot of people off power. They have 300 additional people other than their normal work force, I would guess usually about 30 people.

“It would be a nightmare to coordinate. We sent a digger truck, a service truck and a large bucket truck. They also have crews from Missouri and Northern Texas. They have lots of pine trees in southeast Oklahoma. There’s nothing really to compare with around here.

“The last very similar ice storm we had was in 1984. We had people off for two weeks. We had $500,000 damage and lost 500 poles. That was 16 years ago so you can factor what money’s worth today.They’re spending lots of money, probably in the millions of dollars. They pay the people when they are there; they’re off our payroll.

“There’s no insurance for something like this, so it comes out of general funds. They end up paying out a lot of money in a hurry. They’ll probably get FEMA, federal emergency money, but that takes a while.”

Even though Reece appreciates the brotherhood, he’s glad the worst missed Kansas this time.

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