By Shelley Grieshop
ST. MARYS -- Along the remote back roads of Columbia, Miss., it was difficult for electric crews to find the homes stripped of utilities by Hurricane Katrina.
But when power was restored, they heard signs of life, says eight Midwest Electric workers who recently returned from the area.
"We couldn't see anybody," equipment operator Jerry Poppe of St. Marys says. "But we'd hear them yelling, celebrating."
On Sept. 1, the first of two four-men crews left the Midwest Electric headquarters in St. Marys to help restore power to thousands of homes. Columbia, the area where they focused their efforts, has a population just above 17,000.
The St. Marys-based crews met up with the Pearl River Valley Electric Cooperative, Midwest's sister utility company, in Columbia. According to Pearl River Valley officials, approximately 8,300 out-of-state workers came to their aid from 19 states, including more than 60 cooperatives from Ohio. The first local group arrived home Thursday after working two full weeks. The second crew left Sept. 12 and returned Monday.
"When we first got there, they only had power to one substation," Poppe says. "Materials were pretty slim. We had to use the old equipment off the old poles and bang it back into shape."
Fortunately, a pole factory was nearby in Hattiesburg and soon supplies came rolling in, the men say. By the time the second crew headed for home, the area had gone from nearly blackout conditions to a mere 10 percent without power. One of the co-op systems lost 30,000 poles as Katrina passed through.
"They told us winds hit the area at 125 miles per hour," says crew leader Ron Fisher of St. Marys.
A woman they met said she emptied her 5-inch rain gauge three times before the Hurricane struck. The men, ranging in age from 33 to 53, saw trees uprooted, hanging on homes and resting on squashed cars and RVs.
Traveling with one bucket truck, a digger, a pole trailer and tools from home, the local guys worked 16-hour days (the most allowed by law), seven days a week, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"The heat really wears you down, it takes a lot of water," Poppe says.
Their job was primarily to replant poles and rehang primary wire. The secondary wires that ran from the poles to homes were connected when crews had time and supplies, the men say.
Most of the crew had volunteered for disaster duty at other times including a recent trip to Alabama where Hurricane Dennis struck two months ago.
In January, when the Grand Lake area was devastated by an ice storm, other cooperatives from all over the country joined Midwest's workers to restore power here. The men agreed the damage they saw in Mississippi was much worse.
The system of restoring power, however, was the same. The men began at the substations, worked down the main feeders, tapped the lines, then connected the power to individual homes.
"That way you restore power to the largest number of people at a time," lineman Bill Carter of Wapakoneta explains.
Ohio crews put about 50 poles in place each day along the winding Mississippi roads.
The area to the south of Columbia was much worse and crews weren't allowed in. Steve Conner of Celina, a Mississippi native, said there was no point in rebuilding the electric service in that area because there was nothing to build it to.
"They'll have to get engineers in there first and decide where houses used to be," Conner says.
Cell phone usage was spotty because of downed towers so contact with families back home was infrequent some days. The crews spent their short nights in a hotel with other linemen from across the U.S., filling the parking lot with utility trucks.
Their presence touched the hearts of many Mississippians who easily spotted Midwest's maroon trucks and Ohio license plates. Joy and Donovan McComb of Columbia sent a letter of gratitude:
"We know you have worked long hours in our southern heat and many of you have even slept in your trucks. Please know how much you have touched our hearts and lives. Your unselfishness will not be forgotten."
Some showed their appreciation with food.
"One woman wanted to cook us a meal," says Jim Piper, an equipment operator from Neptune. The men also recalled the lady who drove 30 miles to get them a pizza that miraculously was still warm when she arrived.
Fisher says the crew who stayed behind in St. Marys deserves credit, too.
"Some of them had to double-up on calls. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to go," he says.